Monday 11 November 2013

Conversation Contest

Wherein I riff gratefully and unashamedly on Chris’ outstanding concept of a Conversation Contest. This is the first iteration. It will not be perfect and there will be flaws, but given the source of the idea going through the process out loud and in public seems like the right thing to do; it might be useful, or at least interesting (or at least amusing), for people to see exactly what kind of considerations can go into a lesson before its actual execution. Putting my money where my mouth is, that kind of thing...

Because money talks etc etc and other cliches.

It will necessarily also be tailored to me and my specific situation: it’s unlikely this exact plan would work in most, or even many, schools and I would also caution about seeing this as a template for How to Plan a Lesson. It’s a rough and partial representation of the things I think about when working up a lesson for the first time, and while I would argue that every lesson deserves a similarly substantial amount of thought, the exact details will and should vary.

Part One - Unnecessarily Lengthy Pre-amble
I’ve been at this lark for a while now, so I’ve built up a pretty reliable stock of lesson plans and ideas. Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect lesson – there’s always something you could improve or that could have gone better, so things are constantly getting tweaked and adjusted – but by and large we’re talking evolution here, not revolution.

Of the 25-30 lessons I’ll have with my ichi-nensei this year, the vast majority will be ones I’ve done in some form or other before. Maybe only five or six will be wholly new. On the infrequent occasions I do design a new lesson from the ground up I have an unfortunate tendency to overthink things. I’m well able to talk to the problem of overcomplicating things and confusing signal with noise because they’re traps I know I can fall into myself if I don’t take precautions.

I’m lucky enough to have a few colleagues whose opinions I trust, so I’ll discuss any new lesson plans with them and let them act as a corrective to my more expansive tendencies. Of course they’re Japanese, so they’ll rarely give me an outright criticism, but if they get noticeably more enthusiastic about one specific aspect of a lesson it usually means the other bits aren’t up to scratch. Time to get out the red pen.

I teach at state high school. As with all high schools in Japan it’s selective, and this one is ‘academic’ and very high level. The kids who graduate from here go to Todai, Kyodai, Osaka, and the like. Last year I had to native-check entirely rewrite a reference for a former pupil’s application to Cambridge.

These kids are smart and motivated. I mean seriously, whip-crack smart. I’m obviously not overly encumbered by an excessive sense of humility regarding my own intellectual chops, but some of my students are clearly (going to be) smarter than I am and that’s a rare privilege. Here more than anywhere else I’ve taught it’s clear I have to be on top of my game every single day. In every class I give I can see the cogs turning as what I say gets processed, filtered, and rejected or filed. I do, it must be said again, absolutely fucking love my job.

But they’re still smart and motivated in that particularly Japanese interpretation of the words. There are, as you might expect in a school prioritizing academic ability, a hell of a lot of geeks. Good kids. Really good kids, but, well… My wife came to the culture festival last year. I asked what she thought of the students and she said, “A lot of them wear glasses, don’t they?”

So what this means is that while they all know a lot of English, and they all know a lot about English, very few of them can actually use the language worth a damn. This is true across the board in Japan, but the disparity between knowledge and ability is particularly large here. Add to this the fact that just about every single student in the ichi-nensei has come up from a junior high where they were the smartest kid in the class and everything came easily – now all of a sudden they’re not so special and they actually have to work for it. A lot of them have been on quite a little journey over the past few months.

The official change (but not really) in the SHS curriculum this year has been great in that respect, because it’s been enough of an excuse to ditch the dedicated Oral Communication textbook so I don’t even have to pretend to make use of it any more (I have never yet seen a genuine Oral Communication text in Japan. They’ve all just been grammar textbooks with some speaking and listening. Reading Out Loud textbooks, basically). The speaking exercises in this year’s ‘English Expression’ textbook are so obviously fucking risible and half-hearted that neither I nor any of my JTEs feel any guilt about ignoring them completely.

The implication of all this is that I give them less in class, not more. They don’t need any new information. They don’t need any more vocabulary or grammar. They need to get better at using what they already do have. They’re all wonderful mechanics, but none of them can actually drive. And thus this year is an ongoing experiment in seeing just how little support I need to give them. What is the bare minimum I have to provide in order for them to make their own progress? They get a broad structure, a situational goal, or a desired outcome, and the exact language they use to get there is up to them. Unless it’s Japanese of course, in which case the entire class gets a bollocking.

Not pictured: steering wheel, gear-stick, wheels, road.

So that’s your context. Tedious as all hell for most of you, I realize, but these things don’t occur in a vacuum and you’ve got to appreciate the wider picture. Come Wednesday we’ll actually start looking at some specifics.


  1. Please send the winner round to service my Jag's V12.

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  3. Oh I like this: "They’re all wonderful mechanics, but none of them can actually drive. And thus this year is an ongoing experiment in seeing just how little support I need to give them."

    The engine mechanics are an anchor in the deep end. I had to teach myself to simplify the thoughts I wanted to express in Japanese in order to get it out of my mouth as anything recognizable. It's not what you have, but how you make use of it. It explains why the Gaijin-hunter who went to a nursing college and was only on her second when I was he can out-communicate (speaking, not that the other was poor) 'Mr. Personality' from Todai who breaks into a sweat ordering coffee in the Honolulu Hilton, where he could do it in Japanese anyway.

    Do the kids a favour, and see if they have any vocabulary for what they'll ever use English for: travel, eating, and fucking if they're lucky. Then make them apply it (well, not the fucking). McGill's Japanese programme wasn't terrible, but I could have used a lot fewer units on economics and politics in year two, and more on reading a menu and train schedules, paying bills and the like. Didn't need them on buying prophylactics, and negotiating consent, because the former are of no use from Japan, and the latter you should have a sense of before you're let loose here.

  4. "The engine mechanics are an anchor in the deep end" Love that car-crash of a metaphor. Why would a boat big enough to need an anchor be in a swimming pool? So many unanswered questions.

    We're going big on the pragmatics this year. Not so much situation specific as getting beyond the whole Reception Only (of the less popular Production Only) mindset and trying to actually get a bit of practice at actual two-way communication. Which is probably about as close as I can get to teaching chat-up lines in the classroom. Not that I'm an expert, of course...

    1. Thought you'd like the metaphor. It's a disaster but it's my disaster.