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.