The Japanese Zodiac Animals and Ema Prayer Plaques

”A horse is a horse, of course, of course………”

~ Mr. Ed

Without contradicting the world’s most famous talking horse, let me just add that sometimes horses are also small pieces of wood, at least here in Japan. I offer exhibit A:

ema kyoto japan

The petite wooden prayer plaques in the photo to the left are called ema and in Japan they’re a common sight at shrines and temples.

Anyone can buy one for the equivalent of around $5 US and write a message on the back and the staff will add it to the others, so that the gods will take notice and hopefully grant the writer’s wishes.  Tje Japanese zodiac animals are but one motif of many that you’ll find on this small wooden boards.

The Evolution of Ema in Japan

Centuries ago though, parishioners offered horses to shrines to gain the gods’ favor. On a practical level, horses were valuable assets, and they were also thought of as divine messengers. So offering a horse was seen as a natural way for prosperous members of the flock to express their faith and offer their support.

But over time, the practice faded-after all, horses are beyond the means of most of us, and then there’s the issue of schlepping one to the shrine!

So at some point, some enterprising, innovative soul came up with the idea of simply portraying a horse on a piece of wood that could serve as a stand-in for the real thing and be sold at places of worship for a nominal cost.

Suddenly anyone could offer a horse, and in addition to the image of a horse on the front, the reverse side of the ‘ema’ plaque became a useful place for the the donor to write their wishes(often for good health, with prayers for exam success also a mainstay these days).

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If you’re looking for Japanese good luck charms, you might well have something other than ema in mind. Such charms, unlike ema, are kept, at least for a time, and are carried on one’s person or kept in one’s car and often come in very small, decorative drawstring pouches with kanji characters on them. They are also often protection against specific dangers, such as traffic accidents, etc.

You can see this rich history in modern-day ema if you look at their shape and at the name itself. There’s no hard and fast rule governing what a prayer plaque can look like, and many places these days strive to stand out by creating distinct styles or designs.

The most common though, are the sort in the photos in this post, a pentagonal piece of wood with a peaked top. This represents the roof of the barn that the horse is sheltered in. Originally, ema quite predictably depicted horses, and the name literally means ‘picture-horse’ with 絵(‘e’)conveying the meaning of a picture and 馬(‘ma’)representing a horse.

Over time places started to create 絵馬 with a variety of other illustrations, depending on that particular temple or shrine’s own history. The Kyoto shrine where I took the photo below, for example, has a strong connection to inoshihi(boar), so you’ll find an 絵馬 with a cute version of a tusker.

Ema and Japanese Zodiac Signs

Ema also often depict the creature in the ‘eto’ animal zodiac whose turn it is in a given year of the twelve year cycle. That’s why Kyoto’s Goh Shrine, also popularly known as the boar shrine, displays a giant ema with the animal of the annum on the side of one of its buildings. The picture below will tell you which animal’s turn it is this year, if you don’t already know.

ema

The boar by the way, along with the monkey above, is one of the animals in this zodiac, and yes, this particular shrine is especially festive when the Year of the Boar rolls around!

The horse is also in the animal zodiac lineup, and so in horse years, a great number of ema happen to be especially true to their name and their roots.

Here’s a nice example of all of the animals of the zodiac shown together, on a furoshiki cloth that features them on ema with a traditional repeat pattern called asanoha as a base.

I happen to be a horse, born in 1966.  If you don’t know what animal you are, check this list of the animals and their respective years:

Rat/Mouse

2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936, 1924

Ox/Cow  

2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937, 1925

Tiger  

2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938, 1926

Rabbit 

2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939, 1927

Dragon  

2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940, 1928

Snake 

2013, 2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941, 1929

Horse 

2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930, 1918

Sheep

2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931, 1919

Monkey  

2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, 1932, 1920

Rooster/Chicken 

2005, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, 1933, 1921

Dog 

2006, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, 1934, 1922

Boar

2007, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935, 1923

Soooo………..What’s your sign?

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Originally posted 2016-09-15 14:31:11.

There’s a Rabbit in the Moon and he’s making mochi!

What?!  There’s a rabbit in the moon?!

Growing up in the states, when I looked at the moon I saw a man there. I never thought about what he was doing or how he got there, but there he was. I could make out his face, and I took it for granted that other cultures saw the same sort of imagery.

Certainly, Americans aren’t alone in seeing him. But when I moved to Japan, I was surprised to find out that according to folklore, there’s actually a rabbit up there!

It turns out that it’s also quite common to see a rabbit in the moon, as it appears in folklore throughout East Asia and also also in ancient Aztec mythology. And so if you’re looking for rabbit fabric with an Asian flair, it’s likely that you’ll come across motifs connected with this legend.

This rabbit has taken on special characteristics in the Japanese version of the legend, and is often shown in distinctly Japanese scenes, mostly associated with autumn and the harvest moon. The furoshiki cloth above features such a scene, with traditional autumn grasses. Click on the photo to see it and others on amazon. Can you spot the rabbit?

In other posts I looked at some of the celebrated ‘seven grasses of autumn’ which appear frequently on furoshiki cloths and other textiles. The harvest moon is also a common element in such motifs, as are rabbits, playfully hopping through the grasses in the glow of the moon. This has made these designs quite popular among rabbit lovers, as well as those with an interest in Japan and Japanese fabrics.

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The rabbit has quite a big role in ‘tsukimi’ moon-viewing festivities and designs such as the Japanese noren split curtain below because he has a place in folklore that forever ties him with the moon in a very significant way.

The rabbit in the moon came to be there, according to Japanese legend, because he passed a test and demonstrated his virtue when he was among three animals called upon to perform an act of charity for someone in need. He literally threw himself on a cooking fire in the service of another, a sacrifice that went went beyond the earnest actions of the others.

If the rabbit hadn’t been the one to commit this supremely selfless act, according to Japanese myth there might instead be a frog or a fox in the moon and on your fabric!

But before you feel too sorry for the others, I should mention that the rabbit isn’t idle up there. He seems to be enjoying his work, but he is certainly keeping busy. He’s making mochi rice cakes, pounding the rice, which has been placed in a mortar.

I can say from personal experience that it’s harder than it looks!

Neighborhoods often have mochi rice cake pounding events during the first few days of the new year, and I have taken part and given the mochi a few good whacks when folks are taking turns at it, and I can say that it would take some stamina and technique to see the whole process through from start to finish.

Not only is the mallet heavy, but the person swinging it needs to take great care in their timing. Accuracy isn’t a big challenge, as the big blob of sticky, pounded rice is an easy target.

But rhythm is crucial because there’s teamwork involved, as a second person is adding water a little at a time and turning the mochi-in-the-making in between impacts so that it won’t stick to the mallet and so it all gets pounded into the same consistency.

furoshiki

The first time someone passed the mallet to me I underestimated its heft because the welcoming, diminutive elderly lady who put it in my hands had been pounding away with great gusto and had made it look easy! The gentleman who was turning the mochi in the stone mortar as I wielded the mallet showed great faith in a novice’s ability to avoid his fingers and quite nimbly stayed out of the mallet’s way, which all added up to a wonderful time with friendly people, delicious mochi with nary a mishap.

Here’s a short video of some pros pounding mochi during an event at a famous old mochi shop in Nara. They’re showing off their well honed skills here, working at a fast pace and doing stunts to thrill the crowd who, like me, had likely never seen turbocharged mochi pounding like this!

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Like the rabbits in the above furoshiki, there are a couple of guys swinging mallets together, and at one point a third even joins in, but usually just one person pounds at a time, for obvious safety reasons. This virtuoso performance is capped by the serving of fresh mochi rice cakes to an appreciative throng of customers.

The mochi in the video is a beautiful green hue because Japanese mugwort(yomogi)has been added. This is lot of fun to watch.  Just don’t try it at home!

You might get the chance to try it for yourself if you head to a Japanese culture festival, as some are held overseas, too. But whether you ever hold the mallet or not, don’t forget to give the next full moon a good look-you might be surprised by what looks back at you!

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Originally posted 2016-09-03 15:05:27.

Japan’s Seven Grasses of Autumn Part 2

Could you identify the the tall grass depicted in the closeup of the furoshiki in my last post? I mentioned it earlier in that article, and it’s none other than Japanese pampas grass. It’s a mainstay in fall season motifs, often paired with bush clover.

It’s a tall, delicate grass with a lovely ‘tail’ at the top that gives it one of its names in Japanese, obana, which literally means ‘ tail flower.’ And it does look like a horse’s tail, with its chestnut color and gentle swaying as it catches an autumn breeze.

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It’s also known as susuki, a name you can remember by associating it with the common surname ‘Suzuki’ and changing the pronunciation slightly so that the first two syllables sound alike.

Here are closeups of two furoshiki cloths with fall season motifs that include both bush clover and susuki.

Its height and the way its delicate tassels shimmer in the light make Japanese pampas grass a fixture in classical verse that has so movingly and vividly captured the essence of autumn over the centuries. This ethereal quality is used to great effect on fabrics like these, which depict night scenes with a luminous harvest moon as the centerpiece.

And the moon plays a central role in the furoshiki below, which also highlights our third grass. Kikyo are bellflowers, and it seems that hair ornament designers are as taken by them as textile artists and poets. Their beautiful purple is the inspiration for the overall color scheme of this charming scene with rabbits jumping in the moonlight:

Look closely and you’ll notice bush clover and Japanese pampas grass, and a pair of rabbits jumping in the moon’s glow.  By the time a typically hot and humid Japanese summer starts to wind down I inevitably start to look forward to autumn’s cool breezes and all of its other charms, including these traditional symbols of the season.

As I write these words on a sultry late August Kyoto evening, I’m reminded that another glorious autumn isn’t far away!

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Originally posted 2016-08-21 14:52:53.

Japan’s Seven Grasses of Autumn Part 1

The Japanese have long had a keen awareness of the seasons and a sensitivity to the things that make each time of year distinct. So it’s no surprise that so many furoshiki and tenugui and Japanese textiles in general celebrate the seasons in their motifs.

Over the years though, as I’ve discovered more and more designs to include in my shop, I’ve been struck by how ubiquitous autumn designs are. Why should this be?

One answer might simply be that artists have so many symbols to choose from when they create fall scenes. The case could also be made that autumn is closest to the hearts of many Japanese, and perhaps not coincidentally it’s a time of year when it seems that seasonal delicacies are most abundant and savored.

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It’s true of course that spring is well represented, but so much of that as far as textile design goes seems to center on the ephemeral cherry blossoms, or sakura as they’re called in Japanese.

Autumnal motifs on the other hand seem to offer more variety. Even though some themes may dominate, these motifs are often made up of a variety of different patterns and scenes in a single composition.

It’s a delight to focus on a design and give it a chance to reveal itself. When it comes to fall season motifs plants play a central role, and there are actually a set number, seven to be exact, that are known as the grasses of autumn that I’d like to introduce this time.

These have had a prominent role in the way Japanese represent and think about the season since classical times and their names are ubiquitous in literature. They are:

  • Hagi
  • Kuzu
  • Obana
  • Ominaeshi
  • Nadeshiko
  • Fujibakama
  • Kikyo

This post and the next will focus on the three that in my experience are most commonly seen on furoshiki and similar Japanese fabrics, obana, hagi and kikyo.

You’ll soon see that the term ‘grasses’ is used in a general sense here and includes a variety of plants. My favorite, hagi, is the one I’ll introduce this time. It’s in peak form in early autumn, usually at some point between the first half of September to the first half of October depending on the place.

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Below is a closeup of bush clover from a furoshiki cloth. Bush clover leaves grow in clusters of three oval leaflets. This motif depicts the plant in a typical way with some of the leaflets dissected by a vertical line, which reminded me of coffee beans years ago when I first saw a piece of fabric with a similar scene!

Hagi are known as bush clover or Japanese clover in English. It’s one of many plants I’ve become aware of only since moving to Japan. Until I sat down to write this, I wasn’t sure if it’s even found back home in the states. It turns out that it is, but it has mostly been thought of in the US in practical rather than decorative terms. It’s sometimes used as cover for pastures and as fodder for livestock and in fighting erosion, and even in greening up abandoned mining sites. As it’s a member of the pea family and spreads quickly, it’s well suited for such purposes. So if you live in a zone that’s favorable, this harbinger of autumn might be the perfect choice for your garden, as long as you take care not to let it go unchecked.

Rabbits are also a symbol of autumn and often are shown with autumn grasses, as on the textile below:

If you look you’ll notice bush clover along with another of the seven grasses-can you name that one as well? No worries if you can’t-that’ll be the focus of anther post!

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Originally posted 2016-08-18 14:37:33.

Japanese Cotton Fireman’s Sashiko ‘Hikeshi Banten’ Hanten Jackets: Wearable Art

When I came upon this antique fireman’s hanten(jacket) from the Meiji(1868-1912) or early Taisho(1912-1926)period, it prompted me to do some research on these rugged, well crafted and often whimsically decorated coats. It also prompted me to open my wallet, but that’s another story!

Sashiko hanten like this are called ‘hikeshi banten’ in Japanese, literally ‘fireman’s jacket.’ Its heavy cotton was meant to absorb a good deal of water to help protect its wearer from the fire. After being soaked in water, they were worn with the plain side facing out, with the design as the lining. It must have been quite heavy with all that water weight added to this thick fabric!

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In the days before electricity came into widespread use, it was all too common in Japan for fires to break out on account of candles and lanterns, and as Japanese houses are traditionally made of wood and paper, it’s not hard to imagine how formidable and common a foe fire was in the daily lives of the citizenry.

As such, the role of the fireman in the community was vital and the rudimentary tools that they relied on along with the factors mentioned above stacked the odds in favor of the fire more often than not. Firemen were therefore seen as courageous men of valor and honor who would without hesitation sacrifice themselves in the interest of coming to the aid of their community.

After the fire was put out, the firemen would take off their jackets and wear them inside out to to show off the elaborate designs that had been hidden from view until then. To see firemen wearing their jackets in such showy fashion was to know that the danger was past and they had come through the battle unscathed, or at least well enough to fight again.

They’d then walk through town on the way perhaps to a local drinking establishment, attracting the gaze of admiring townsfolk appreciative of their courage and envious of their distinctive jackets, in a victory lap of sorts.

The theme of the work is referred to as ‘Hi no tamashi ni mukao wakamusha’ in Japanese, which means ‘A Young Warrior Confronts the Spirit of the Fire.’

These are always a pleasure to come across, and if you’re interested in seeing a range of intriguing motifs, a quick net search should yield interesting results.

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Originally posted 2015-09-22 14:30:03.

Arashiyama Monkey Park: Wild Monkeys and a Great Kyoto View!

Looking for fun and unique things to do in Arashiyama?

In addition to its other charms, the area offers a great view of the city if you’re willing to set aside a little time and don’t mind some climbing. And Arashiyama Monkey Park on Iwatayama Mountain is a great reason to make the hike!

When you visit Kyoto, especially if your trip comes on the heels of time spent in Tokyo, you’ll likely be struck by the low skyline. Kyoto City imposes strict regulations on construction, which has helped Kyoto to maintain its charms over the years, even as other locales succumb to development and the ‘higher is better’ mentality.

Look and you’ll notice Kyoto Tower in the top photo. It certainly stands out, whereas it would surely be lost among the jumble of tall buildings that define Tokyo!

This also means though, that finding a good vantage point from which to get the lay of the land can be a challenge.  One great way to get a memorable view of the city is to head over to the western part of Kyoto.

Arashiyama plays host to a unique center often referred to in English as Monkey Park or Monkey Mountain.  You’ll also find it if you search using the name of the proper name of the mountain, Iwateyama(yama means mountain in Japanese).  The official English website is here.

After a climb, you’ll be greeted by wild monkeys, who are fed by the staff there.  Visitors also can feed them, with food for sale on the premises. There are feeding stations that visitors enter before offering snacks to the monkeys gathered outside.  Quite a refreshing twist on the standard scenario that finds the monkey in the enclosed space!

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While this is highly recommended, it isn’t for everyone-those with leg problems or other health issues should carefully consider whether they’re up to the climb, which can feel steep at times, especially in hot weather.  Kyoto’s humid summers make it seem even steeper, so do keep the season and the weather as well as your physical condition in mind before heading up there.  As always, a bottle of water, regardless of the weather, will serve you well!

Originally posted 2015-02-17 15:07:55.

Teach English in Japan WELL: Teacher Talking Time

Each Teach English in Japan WELL post offers up a practical tip for honing your teaching skills and work habits that can pay big dividends with students at conversation schools.

Contrary to popular belief, Charles Dickens was not paid by the word.  His books were long simply because he had something to say. And because he said it so well, the length of his works didn’t stand in the way of gaining an enduring following.

Although we as English teachers don’t get paid by the word either, you’d be forgiven for thinking that some of us are, based on the way more than a few instructors take up a significant amount of class time and oxygen with their own talking.  

This is an affliction common among, though certainly not exclusive to new teachers, and becoming aware of this tendency and controlling it can play a big part in improving the quality of your teaching.

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I’m writing this specifically for those who want to teach English in Japan at an eikaiwa conversation school or in university or other classes that happen to focus on fostering the students’ speaking ability. But obviously, there are contexts where teachers are well and truly lecturers.

In a sense, teacher talking time is one of the easiest things to address or at least hone your awareness of, in that measuring how much time you spend talking is easy to do.

Simply invite someone such as a co-worker or head teacher to observe your lessons with that along with other aspects of the lesson in mind.  Then have a frank discussion with them about what they saw.

I started the previous paragraph with the word ‘simply’ but of course opening yourself up to such a critique can be very intimidating. So cultivating an atmosphere of trust with others in your workplace such as teachers and head teachers are important and can pay big dividends in this sense.

As we all know, talking too much is easy to do in general, and there are various reasons for a teacher talking too much in the classroom.

A basic belief that leads to this is that teaching equals talking, that you are there to instruct, to explain.  That your job is to share your knowledge and opinions. Ask yourself how well this describes your own take on teaching, and if not, try to put into words your own ideas about what role you serve.

Then there’s our fear of silence.  Years ago in the states I was a radio DJ.  Dead air was our nemesis. Silence was inherently bad.

Silence in the classroom isn’t necessarily so.  Productive, dynamic silence can lead to new ideas and new language skills as students take the time to absorb new constructs and attempt to master them.

But often, silence during a lesson does signal something is off, and teacher talking is an all too easy way to address those moments when students stop talking because something is too hard, not engaging, or played out.

How much do you talk in an average lesson? If you don’t know, put some thought and effort into finding out.

Originally posted 2020-01-22 02:21:48.

Star Wars Tenugui Cloths Make Great Gifts!

If you’re hunting for a gift for the Star Wars fan in your life, there are of course a zillion choices. And that’s the problem! But if the giftee in question has an affinity for things Japanese as well, then the choices get narrowed considerably.

And to my mind, in the realm of Japanese gifts for Star Wars fans, prime candidates are a line of made in Japan fabric cloths called tenugui that have lively and fun Star Wars themes that also incorporate various aspects of Japanese culture.

Aside from the cool factor, Japanese Star Wars tenugui cloths are quite light and compact when folded. Accordingly, you won’t pay much for shipping if you buy them online, and the so-called ‘free shipping’ that many sellers offer won’t mean inflated pricing for the tenugui itself to cover their own high shipping costs.

And of course in turn if you plan on sending a tenugui to someone, you won’t get dinged much for postage. And since these are flat, wrapping them for mailing is a cinch.

What is a tenugui?

I’ve answered that question at length in a separate post, in case you care to delve into the particulars-it’s a good read if you’re thinking about buying a tenugui and are curious about not just these designs, but the fabric as well.

Along with a long, rich history in Japan, tenugui cloths have certain distinct characteristics that you should be aware of before you make a purchase.

And you can pass along your new knowledge along with your gift, to give it some context and enhance its already considerable charm. Everyone loves a good story after all, and people who are into Japan and its culture will appreciate knowing more about these very Japanese textiles.

Though these fabrics were used as hand towels and headbands in the past, these days they are most often used as decor and look great on walls.

Having said that, these designs also do make great headwraps, similarly to how bandanas are used in the west, though the shape is a bit different, so please keep that in mind as well.

People who practice martial arts sometimes wear them during workouts, etc. and I’ve heard of folks who cover their heads with tenugui when they’re doing yard work.

A natural, lighthearted blend of cultural references

I did a double take when I first saw these star wars tenugui designs, and then of course it made perfect sense- George Lucas after all, has always cited Japanese cinema as a major influence. So this mashup is far from a random pairing.

As you might imagine, there’s a sense of irreverent fun running through these motifs. Some of the designs also incorporate classical kanji character sayings that when referenced in this context take on a fresh and lighthearted tone.

Here are some photos that I took myself of cool tenugui from this collection. All are made in Japan of 100% cotton with traditional dyeing methods and are officially licensed Star Wars products.

Click on a tenugui title above any of the Star Wars tenugui photos to see it on amazon.

Storm Troopers

It looks like these storm troopers mean business! So far, so normal. Look closely at the sky behind them though and this tenugui’s Japanese accents will come into sharper focus for you.

First of all, you might notice the waves on the right, which are stylized in a traditional way, almost appearing to have fingers, curled as if they’re beckoning you.

If you’re a Japanese textile aficionado, you might well also pick up on a reference to traditional fabric dyeing techniques in those clouds.

Look closely and those clouds are made up of a pattern that resembles shibori, Japanese tie-dye. Though it’s just a representation of that classic look and not the real thing of course, it adds a subtle, elegant reference for those in the know.

The fearsome looking cloud on the left looks like a ‘nyudogumo’ or thunderhead cloud, a fixture of Japanese summers. It’s got to be hot and humid out there-no wonder those storm troopers are peevish!

R2D2 and C3P0 Under the Sakura Cherry Blossoms

This tenugui features C3P0 in a philosophical mood, and who can blame him?

In this scene, after all, as he stands with R2D2, the sakura cherry blossoms are at their peak and petals are blowing in the breeze.

It’s just the sort of moment that over the centuries has inspired so many to wax poetically about the ephemeral beauty of life.

Cherry blossom viewing parties, known as hanami, are a fixture of early spring in Japan. They celebrate this transience with frivolity and fun along with food and drink served potluck style on blankets under the blossoms.

Darth Vader and Cherry Blossoms

Darth Vader caught in a contemplative moment, hoping that a delicate cherry blossom petal will waft its way into his outstretched, gloved hand.

Four kanji characters, pronounced gyoku seki kon kou, are written in the traditional vertical style on the right.

They constitute a classical expression which refers to a mix of disparate elements that aren’t often seen together, and are valued differently. Rocks and jewelry, for example….or Darth Vader and cherry blossoms, in this case!

R2D2 and C3P0 Take a Japanese Onsen Hot Spring Bath

C3P0 and R2D2 are seen here indulging in one of the highlights of a trip to Japan-a hot spring bath. This one’s especially inviting, as it’s outdoors with a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji in the fading light.

That’s a drawing of a ‘noren’ split curtain with the stylized mark of a public bath on it at the top of the tenugui, with steam coming out of it. You’ll see such noren curtains in front of onsen, as well as sento, which are public baths meant for everyday use.

Onsen like the one depicted are thought of as a special treat in that they’re often in scenic countryside locals away from the hustle and bustle of cities.

They’re also known for their spring water, which is often promoted as having medicinal properties, depending on the locale and the lore surrounding it.

These two are clearly up on public bath etiquette, as they’re taking care not to let their small bath towels get in the water! You can perch your towel on your head as R2D2’s doing.

And when you’re out of the bath, perhaps walking from one bath to another, your towel will likely come in handy, especially if you’re the modest type!

Darth Vader and Yoda

Darth Vader and Yoda square off with traditional Japanese waves.

The kanji characters written vertically are pronounced riki sen fun tou. that refers to a desire to fight with all your might, to give it all you’ve got.

This classical expression has a long and rich history and is most associated with battles in feudal times when there was little if any mercy shown to the vanquished and losers often didn’t have a chance to fight another day.

With the stakes so high in this epic clash between Darth Vader and Yoda, this sentiment seems entirely appropriate!

Darth Vader and Flames

A triumphant Darth Vader emerging from a wall of flames. Above him is a classical expression that conveys a sense of being in high spirits, full of power.

The second of the four kanji characters literally means ‘fire’ and this design clearly takes its cue from that! The kanji characters are pronounced ki en ban jyou.

May the force be with you in your search for something (inter)stellar. Star Wars tenugui might be just what you’re after!

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Originally posted 2019-11-23 21:49:12.

Teaching English in Japan: Motivating Students

This is the fourth 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.

The English language course that I taught at university in Kyoto was required for my students, so inevitably some were more motivated than others.  All students expressed a strong desire to pass the class and to receive credit for it, but this was the only goal for some, while others strived to use the time to improve their English, to explore new topics and ways of thinking, and to make new friends among their classmates.

Just as motivation varied with the student, so did English proficiency level. Whereas in my conversation school classes I could move a student to a different class if I thought his level didn’t suit a certain group, this wasn’t an option at university. The challenge was to motivate lower level students to give it their best or at least not disrupt the lessons, while giving the more advanced students a chance to expand their knowledge and thereby keep them engaged.

THE STICK

The power to decide who passes and fails the class is something that I wasn’t used to-I’d never given grades at conversation school. The first thing I did was formulate a grading system, assigning various tasks and giving a clear weight to all of them in relation to the final grade. I gave a sheet with all of this information on it to the students in our first session together, and gave them a chance to ask questions and showed them examples of what I was referring to. I asked them to take it home and sign it to show me that they understood it.

A full 50% of the grade was earned through attendance and participation. In this way, if a lower level student came to class and was active, that effort would go a long way toward successfully completing the class.
I walked around as they spoke with each other, and evaluated them daily on a scale of one to ten in regards to participation. A key aspect of this was something fairly simple on one level, but a strategy that I didn’t anticipate having to use beforehand. As I circulated, helping students when they needed it, I simply carried a notebook in my arms and glanced at it often, and I’d write things in it as I went.

Sometimes I was actually writing a score or note next to a student’s name, but there were times when I was doing nothing more than doodling, in order to give the impression that I was always monitoring and noting things. I quickly saw that in this way, silently without any explicit threats, I could encourage students to keep their focus on the exercise. This allowed me to maintain control without overly exerting it.

Conversely, one response that doesn’t seem to work is expressing anger. This has much to do with Japanese culture, which makes expressing anger in public unacceptable. In the classroom, displaying anger will almost inevitably lead to a loss of respect for the teacher.

The closest I came to expressing outright anger in class was one morning when we’d just gotten together in our circle, and one student who hadn’t done the homework assignment sat with a scowl on his face and refused to do pair work with his partner.  It seemed to me that he was angry at something, and didn’t want to be there. So I announced to the class as a whole in what I considered a calm, matter of fact way that anyone who didn’t want to be there was free to leave.

He promptly got up and walked out!  It solved the matter in a sense, but after he left I could feel that the atmosphere had changed, and had gotten heavier, as students went about their pair work with more hesitation and less flow than usual. It seemed as if they were uncomfortable with what had happened, and it cast a pall over things for a good part of that class.

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I related this incident to a friend who was a teacher at a university, and he simply asked without hesitation, ‘What did you want him to do?’ I realized something at that point. Although I knew there was a chance he’d walk out, I hadn’t thought about what that would accomplish, and what effect it would have on the rest of the students. And I hadn’t thought about what I really wanted to have happen.  Although I hadn’t lost my cool, I realized how anger could cloud my judgement and impair my ability to think things through before acting.

If I’d thought it through more carefully, I might have considered the position I was putting the student in, as well. Others probably noticed his attitude as I had, and realized who I was specifically referring to in that moment. I put him in the position of losing face if he’d stayed there, something that is not taken lightly in Japan. If I had it to do over again, since he wasn’t disrupting the others, I would wait until after class to ask him if he had an issue with me or something else related to class, and I would do it in a concerned way rather than an angry or irritated one.

This experience showed me that it was always preferable to use the least amount of force necessary. In this way, if I were to confront things on any level in the moment again in such a situation, I might well try simple body language. It’s possible that something as subtle as standing next to him and throwing a glance or two his way might have diffused the situation significantly.

I mentioned that in this cultural context, there is a particular aversion to showing anger, and a loss of respect can result if anger is freely expressed. I’m not by nature a disciplinarian, and I find it natural to keep emotions like anger in check. So the bigger challenge for me was to follow through with my standards and penalize students who didn’t follow classroom rules.

The same loss of respect that can come from lashing out can arise from a failure to penalize students who don’t put forward their best effort and/or disrupt the learning of others. This speaks to the issue of fairness. I learned about fairness from another perspective rather unexpectedly, from a student who I occasionally saw on the train ride home after class, and with whom I sometimes chatted about classroom issues.

One day near the end of the term, my ‘train chat informant’ let me know that some students were angry with me over something they considered unfair. Earlier in the semester I had called in sick just an hour before class. The administration put up a notice to let the students know that class would be cancelled that day. I had assumed that students would be more or less glad that class was cancelled, even the ones who especially looked forward to it. They had a heavy course load with lots of homework, and extra time to do that or just unwind with friends couldn’t be a bad thing, I’d thought.

What I hadn’t realized was that many students commuted to campus from a great distance, sometimes upwards of two hours. Ours was their first class of the day, and in some cases, their only class of the day. So instead of feeling a sense of relief, some felt like I had disrespected their time, and had been thoughtless in calling in sick at the last minute, when more advance notice might have saved many of them the early morning train ride to campus.

It seems trite, but I realized then that respect is a two way street. Students needed to feel that I respected them as busy individuals who had responsibilities beyond my class. Things like saving them an unnecessary commute and easing up on homework assignments when they were feeling the combined weight of so many teachers giving so much homework seemed to be an important part of developing a mutual respect and the motivation that can go along with that.

THE CARROT

The concepts involved in community building are closely related to motivation in many instances. My overall goal was to help create an atmosphere where my students could see friends and learn with a feeling of joy and ease. I hoped to foster an atmosphere that would be a positive part of the students’ day.

In a broad sense, as well as teaching them specific things, I wanted to instill in them the idea that learning English could be a pleasurable and practical pursuit, something they could use as a tool in not only conversing with different people, but also to think about things in deeper and often new ways.

One thing that was paramount in all this was my choice of a theme for us to work with throughout the class. If mind maps and short dialogues were appetizers, I wanted to also then create a main course, tailored to the tastes of the students. I created a thematic unit in my ‘Four Skills’ class during my second summer at grad school at SIT. It was a revelation to me, in that until that time I hadn’t built any one theme up beyond a few hours worth of instruction time. But developing a thematic unit  gave me the confidence to try it on a larger scale at university. And since there was no required text assigned by the university in this case, I had the freedom to choose my own materials.

The theme that I chose was ‘Love.’ My criteria were the same as the ones I’d used in shaping and completing my assignment at grad school. That is, I wanted to give students a chance to work with something that was at once universal and personal. It was my hope that choosing such a theme would motivate the students by giving them something through which they could explore new ideas as they learned about their classmates, and in this case, in the course of one of their final assignments, about their own parents as well.

I knew that this theme was potentially fraught with pitfalls. I didn’t want to pry sensitive information out of students that they would have rather kept to themselves. I remembered during my ‘Four Skills’ class as a student at grad school that we used the classic film ‘The Graduate’ to work with various ways of presenting something. Given that one of the themes of that movie is the pursuit of love, it brought up a lot of emotions in me about my own recent romances and not all of those memories were welcome ones.

Here, the concept of ‘affect’ comes to mind.  I realized that for the theme of ‘love’ to serve as a motivation and not as a barrier to discussing various experiences and ideas in English, I’d need to give students the space that I was given in my ‘Four Skills’ class to express my feelings in ways that I chose. I also understood that to be inclusive, the theme also had to be broad enough to encompass various kinds of love, not just the romantic variety. I also stressed that there wouldn’t always be set answers, and that a variety of interpretations, emotions and opinions were possible. I wanted my students to approach their work within the framework with a spirit of freedom and a willingness to put their own ideas into play as we started the unit.

I often reminded the students to relax and just try, and I encouraged them to use their imagination and creativity in role-plays, their poster project, etc. In designing the thematic unit, I remembered that I’d been struck by the limitations I’d placed on my own creativity when I was a student at grad school. I saw that themes can be defined broadly, and that one thing having to do with a theme can also branch off into another issue that has nothing directly to do with the main theme.

One example of this was a lesson we had about a boy and girl who were friends. The girl had a bad heart and needed a transplant , and when the boy had a premonition one day that he would die, he told his family to give his heart to his friend if that should happen. The family didn’t pay much attention to him at the time, but remembered his words when he did suddenly die of an aneurysm. The topic was touching to most students, many of whom mentioned it in their feedback papers.

But beyond that, it gave us the chance to explore the issue of organ donation. This was enlightening to me. It was a more serious topic than we usually discussed in that it’s a matter of public policy. I was surprised by how eagerly they talked together about the Japanese government’s stance on the issue, which has changed in recent years. It was encouraging for me to see them talk so earnestly about an issue that didn’t directly affect them at the time, and might never. It also provided a good chance to look at some cultural differences as well as their own feelings about it.

On another day I gave them two short stories. The response from the students was very interesting to me, and also a bit disappointing, in a sense.  They overwhelmingly favored the story with the ‘happy ending’ even though it ended in death. They seemed to take the other story which had a rather flat ending at face value, and so they were unmoved by it. When faced with this, I remembered my own feelings as a grad student in my ‘four skills’ class when I was given a short story that I honestly didn’t grasp the nuance of. I struggled with it, listening to classmates give their interpretations, but none of it seemed to make it more meaningful for me. And all the while, our teacher refrained from adding her impression.

I remember feeling a bit frustrated with myself for not quickly and clearly seeing the writer’s intent, but the process of trying to interpret the story and hearing various classmates give their interpretations was stimulating and prompted me to think about what I’d read even after the class was over.

Recalling these feelings as a learner, I stopped short of interjecting my ideas as I saw my own students reacting to the story on a mostly superficial level. Instead, I posed some questions to get them thinking about alternative interpretations, and finally, offered some that occurred to me while adding that they were just that, my own interpretations.

It was a challenge for me to give them space to form their own opinions, and if and when to chime in with my two cents wasn’t an easy decision, either. But lessons like these made our work together engaging for me as well as the students. And many of them wrote about the stories after in their feedback papers, still ruminating on them as I had at grad school.

Asking them to work with such an emotionally rich topic from a perspective of freedom, inquisitiveness and creativity seemed to serve their learning well. Japanese students are accustomed to learning English for tests, and much of what they learn is forgotten soon after the test is over, since it has already served its main purpose. I wanted to not only motivate the students to communicate, but to increase the chances that they would retain their new skills and be able to use them in the future.

An affective component can do this.  As Earl Stevick wrote in Working with Teaching Methods: What’s at Stake, ‘As I learned during two or three years when I was writing poems from time to time, strong feelings of various kinds can cause the resources within one’s long-term memory to become more fully, more sharply and more readily available.’

ACTIVITIES THAT STUDENTS LIKED

Certain types of activities were particularly popular with students, based on what went on in the classroom and on written feedback they gave me. Early in their education, Japanese students are often exposed to an ALT, or Assistant Language Teacher. ALT’s typically don’t control the content, but are used by the Japanese teacher from once a month to once a week to give students a feel for ‘real’ English.

Since students are typically book bound on other days, passively taking in material needed for tests, the ALT is often asked to fill his classroom time with games to provide a diversion from all that. While there is nothing innately wrong with this approach, it can tend to instill in some students the feeling that time spent with a native speaker in the classroom should be game time.

In my teaching, though I played relatively few games, I tried to infuse everything with an objective, a focus, so that there was a game like side to things without necessarily labeling it a ‘game.’

Inevitably, students often asked for activities more typically thought of as games, though. The memory chain we played with recalling classmates’ names was something in this vein. One game that I developed that was a hit was a melding of tongue twisters and running dictation.  Details of this activity are in the appendix.

Another often heard request from students is songs. Japanese students take part in culture festivals at school in their junior and senior high school years, and get used to practicing for hours and then performing together on stage.  Western music is quite popular here, especially among young people, and so there is a special desire to know what the singers of their favorite songs are saying. We worked with one song, as mentioned in the lesson plan in the appendix, and they undoubtedly would have been happy with more.

Students seemed to enjoy the mind maps and short dialogues that I used at the beginning of class. The feedback comments as well as the participation seemed to support this. There was the potential there, however, especially with mind maps, to lose their interest, and that’s why the variations I developed proved so essential.  Otherwise boredom would have crept in, with the repetition of everyday life providing little new stimulus or talking points.

School and part time jobs made up the bulk of their weeks, and so there was little fresh material to draw on.  Besides making a variety of activities and giving a task to complete, I also worked to get them to look more closely at seemingly everyday things and discover the variations, and to look more deeply into things. Concepts that I learned at the School for International Training(SIT) like ‘milking the content’ and ‘doing a lot with a little’ came to mind again here. It was a chance for them to build awareness about themselves and the things that went on around them.

Students also expressed a keen desire to learn about foreign culture. I tried to add this component to some of our lessons, and like songs, if I’d done more of this, it would have only improved morale and motivation. In terms of our theme of love, there were instances when they discovered a different attitude or way of doing things in other countries that resulted in new knowledge about customs surrounding love in other places.

But more than this, it gave them a point of comparison for things that they had long taken for granted. Therefore, learning about other countries became a way to look more closely at themselves, going back to the idea of building awareness that I spoke of with mind maps.

Students wanted to get to know each other, and doing pair work and switching pairs regularly helped serve this.  A student or two mentioned in feedback though that more group work would have been a good way to add variety to this.  And a few students wrote in feedback that they would have liked the chance to speak with me more. Talking with a native speaker one on one was not a chance that came around for them very often, and furthermore, they wanted to know more about me, aside from what I projected to them as a whole group.

As a part-time teacher there I didn’t have an office, so there was little chance for students to talk with me outside of class. Some also told me that they wanted to hear my opinions more. I hesitate to do this in my teaching, out of concern that it will stifle students who have other thoughts, or even keep them from forming those thoughts to begin with. But I can see the potential that all of these things have to make the experience richer for everyone, and if I were to go back to university I’d work on ways to incorporate them more into what I do.

FEEDBACK: GIVING STUDENTS A VOICE

Students needed and wanted me, as their teacher, to take control, as when I tried to get them to spontaneously on their own choose pair work partners from among classmates with whom they didn’t speak very often.  But they also wanted their feelings and opinions to be heard. I tried to address this through written feedback, as I experienced as a student at SIT.

I asked students to write their impressions of the previous class at home every week and submit it in our next session. I collected them and returned them the following week, along with comments. I didn’t look at grammar and spelling and the like, but rather I focused on content, and responded in my comments from the point of view of an interested reader. In doing this I recalled the work I did at SIT my second summer regarding reading for form vs. content, and I was struck by how difficult it was to do both at the same time.

I explained to the students that the point of the feedback was to create a channel for dialogue between them as individuals and myself, to encourage communication, rather than as a grammar or spelling check. Some students expressed their desire to have me check these things, however, and I declined. Besides going against my stated purpose, it would have quite simply taken too much time if I’d had to go through so many papers on that basis.

But this let me know that there was a hunger among students to have their writing evaluated as well, even though our course was focused on speaking and listening. I tried to address this need a bit when I had them write questions to classmates on their mind maps as I mentioned earlier in this paper. At that time I had the chance to walk around and help with mistakes.

Generally, students seemed to like the feedback papers, because they had the chance to candidly tell me how they felt about a lesson, whether it was too difficult, whether my directions were clear or not, or the sequence was smooth.  Or perhaps they would have liked more time to spend on a certain activity, or simply wanted to tell me that they were tired that day from studying for a test and working at their part time job and that those were the reasons behind their sluggishness that day.

When students saw evidence in class that I had not only read their comments but had taken them to heart and changed my way of doing something perhaps because of that, they seemed empowered and encouraged, and noted in subsequent feedback entries that they appreciated my willingness to hear them and respond concretely.  It seemed to me this did a lot to nurture a feeling of mutual respect and of partnership between us all in the classroom.

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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

How I Survived Teaching English at a Japanese University Part 3: Community Building

Originally posted 2019-05-07 05:13:16.

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.

CIRCLES

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.

MIND MAPS

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.

SHORT DIALOGUES

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:

What/are/you/going/to/do/tomorrow?

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.