Reading Update - Readings this term


I'm really shocked to discover that this term I have completely failed to keep my blog-readers informed of our readings this half of the term. So, hopefully better late than never, here is a recap of this term's readings.

First Grade:
First grade began with a news article about Halloween, "Japan Tricks and Treats Itself to Halloween" which discussed the origins and growing popularity of Halloween in Japan. The students then had small group discussions about various aspects of Halloween and Halloween culture. The students did reasonably well on the activity in terms of speaking, but some found it difficult to listen and respond to what the other students were saying. The fact that this activity was much more challenging than a regular presentation indicates two things to me: one, that the students' presentation skills and confidence in those skills have certainly grown; and two, I made the right decision in expanding our speaking activities to include more skills.

First grade then continued with a non-fiction article, actually written by me, on The Great Molasses Flood of 1919. This article was actually taken from a variety of sources, and recounts an actual disaster in Boston. The students responded to the topic very well, and did an excellent job in their presentations. Several students chose to give examples of other disasters. A couple of students chose a more difficult topic: describing how to be prepared for a disaster. Their presentations were quite illuminating.

Next, the first grade students read "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost. Here the students were asked to do small group presentations. This went a little better than the discussions, however, the students had a little difficulty asking questions and giving comments.

Finally, the students read "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry. Considering how difficult the vocabulary was for this reading, I was very proud of how well they did. We had our first class debate, in this case an open debate (in order to keep the format simple, relaxed and non-adversarial), but the students had a little difficulty in presenting their ideas. Again, the fact that it wasn't easy convinces me that trying different speaking activities is a good thing. Knowing how to present differing points of view in a mature, logical, and not-so-confrontational or defensive manner is a good thing, in my opinion.

Second Grade:
The second graders began the second half of the term with a blog article: "A True Creepy Story for Halloween" about the discovery of a graveyard in Tokyo. Their speaking activity was a presentation, not unlike what they did for Halloween last year.

For their second reading, the students studied and discussed the lyrics to the song "Every Breath You Take" by The Police. Here, we did a class debate to discuss whether the song is, as some people claim, a romantic song, or whether it is actually, as others claim, a song about stalking. The response was overwhelmingly against the song. The debate was quite fun and energetic, but many of the quieter students needed a lot of urging to speak.

Our third reading for the half-term was "The Night the Bed Fell" by James Thurber. The students seemed to have enjoyed this one, though I think most didn't really get why it might be considered funny. Students were required to give small group presentations, and this class actually did very well at asking questions, giving comments and providing opinions. I was very happy with their speaking activity.

Our final reading, which we are doing this week, is the speech "I Will Fight No More Forever" by Chief Joseph. Unfortunately, so far, it is not going so well. Although the speech is very short and simple, the assignment was not so simple. Students were asked not merely to read the speech but to do background research on Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce and the relationship between the U.S. and the Native Americans. While almost all of the students read the speech, very few grasped the full meaning because NO ONE had done the required research.

Now, some of my students have said that, for whatever reason, they do not have access to the internet. I replied with the joke: "In my day, we had something like the internet, and it was called BOOKS!" And I challenged them to visit a library. That said, I see no excuse whatsoever for students at a junior high school such as Seishin, in a program such as NELP, not having access to the internet.

Access to information is a vital part of the education of these students. If we want our students to be prepared to be the leaders of tomorrow, we MUST see that they are well-educated today, and if we want our students to be well-educated, we must see to it that they are well-informed, and that means that they must have clear and easy access to information, whether it means the internet, libraries, or just people to interview or talk to.

More and more, from now on, my course will require students to do research. It is not enough for students to have opinions. It is not enough for students to be able to express opinions. Students must have facts, evidence, cases, research, and examples on which to base their opinions or their opinions are likely to be little more than ephemeral, insubstantial whimsy.

In that view, I ask parents to please make sure that students, all students (not merely my own), have access to libraries and the internet. Furthermore, I strongly encourage parents to assist the educators of their children (and I especially encourage the parents of my students to assist me) in making it clear that it is not enough to merely do the minimum amount of work required. Rather it is necessary and important in reaching one's full potential to challenge oneself by going beyond the required minimum to achieve all that one is capable of. In the case of my reading class, that means doing background research on our readings.

Third Grade:
The third grade began with the news article "Train Victim's Cell Kept Calling Loved Ones After He Died". The students understood the article quite well, but it was interesting to see in our group discussion that there were angles to this story that the students hadn't considered, and that although the article appears to represent a paranormal situation, there is actually the possibility of a non-paranormal, although disquieting, explanation for the events in the article: namely the possibility that rescue workers may have concealed evidence and given false information to a family in order to cover up their failure to discover a train survivor in time to save him.

Next, the third grade students attempted to read "The Lottery", a classic story by Shirley Jackson. The story was much too difficult for the students, although several admitted that they didn't even try to read it. However, the fact that the student with the highest level of English failed to grasp the main idea of the story tells me that the story was perhaps too subtle and too ambitious for these students. I'm actually quite thankful, as I had felt reservations anyway about putting such a macabre story in my curriculum. Next year, I'm considering a short story about a secret community in a busy city. It's quite a charming, friendly and safe story.

After the fiasco that was "The Lottery", we quickly moved on to study the lyrics of the song "You're Beautiful" by James Blunt. This was received much more favorably, in part because we watched videos not only for this song, but also for the parodies of this song: "You're Pitiful" by Weird Al Yankovic, "My Cubicle" by an as-yet-unknown artist, and "It's Bloody Cold" by British comedy group The Dead Ringers. However, the speaking activity was a bit difficult. Students gave presentations about parodies and why there are parodies, but we didn't see many examples, and the students could certainly have put a little more time into their preparation.

Our final reading this term is a non-fiction article, again written by me from a number of sources, on The Christmas Truce of 1914. The students appear to feel very favorably towards the topic, a true story of soldiers who stopped fighting to celebrate Christmas in peace. However, they had difficulty with the vocabulary. Now, it's true that they have access to the main vocabulary list, which I give them. It's also true that they can always get a dictionary. However, some concepts such as a trench or 'no-man's-land' are still difficult to understand even if one can find them in a dictionary.

To remedy this, I think it would be a good idea to spend a little time on Fridays going over the new reading for the following week. I'll try it next term and let you know how it goes.

Third grade is also having tremendous difficulty speaking English is class. There is entirely too much Japanese spoken in the third grade class, and it is, considering the aims of the class, completely unacceptable to have so much chatting. I've threatened their grades, and scolded them harshly, but they are nearing the end of junior high and so seem to care a little less about their performance.

Note to parents; it is vitally important that students use every available moment in NELP class to practice their English. This is a safe and productive environment in which to do so, and it is far better to practice in here (in the NELP classroom) than out there (in the world outside the NELP room door). Please encourage your students.


Latest pictures of the NELP classes


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Here, the high school first grade class is again receiving a lesson from a visiting professor. This lesson was about speed reading, something that I hope will help the students a lot when they take tests.

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Here, my third grade junior high shcool NELP students are reminding me why I'm like a sheep.

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My third grade junior high school class was visited by students from Finland and Australia.

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They had a chance to talk with them.

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And when the talk subsided, we played a game of Jenga. There are questions on these blocks, which makes it more amusing. I bought it here in Japan, but the questions are all in English. I considering, as a future project, having students make questions and write them on an ordinary (i.e. not pink) set of Jenga blocks. Hopefully we can also get a little originality in the questions that way.

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Here a first grade student is working on her brainstorming for an essay in our writing class.

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Here, the first grade students are engaging in a discussion.

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Here, a student is working on an essay.

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Here, another student is working on an essay.

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Here, students are working on the newsletter.

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Here are two other students, also working on the newsletter.

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Here, students are looking at a rough draft of the newsletter.

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Here, students are displaying their final work.


Establishing Goals for the Native English Language Program


Any time that we begin something, it's very important to understand what we hope to achieve. If I'm going to take a trip, it's useful to know where I'm intending to eventually go. That's not a perfect analogy, because sometimes we just want to go for a drive and enjoy the scenery, and that's all well and good if we're taking a drive, but not so good if we're hoping to actually accomplish something.

When I first began building the NELP program and setting up the first curriculum, I thought long and hard about my goals. However, I realized recently that there was a fundamental gap in my goals. I had planned what academic goals I wanted my students to achieve. I knew very well that the primary purpose of the NELP program was to further the students' English language ability, and prevent the loss of English language ability that invariably accompanies a child's return from a comprehensive English language environment overseas to an English language environment that is largely limited to a classroom here in Japan. However, this was not enough of a plan. That's kind of like going for a drive with the only goal being: I don't want to get into an accident.

From the beginning, I had academic goals. I set out very carefully what grammar structures I wanted the students to be able to recognize by third grade. I set out very carefully a plan to improve their reading comprehension, with clear reading targets and vocabulary goals for each grade, and this plan in particular has improved tremendously since I began. I established writing goals for first grade students, and I later added clear speaking goals regarding the kinds of speaking activities and degree of speaking proficiency that I wanted my students to achieve by the end of the third grade. However, again, it was not enough. I went for a drive. My first goal was not to get into an accident. My second goal included clearly established criteria for the trip: numbers. It's kind of like going for a drive and saying: This is how much gas I want to use, this is where I want my fuel efficiency to be, etc. There was one important goal that I had not established, and it's really only been since I began the new reading curriculum this summer that a clear final goal has begun to take shape: our destination.

In essence, my question has been: What is the purpose of the NELP program? Put another way: What do I want my students to be able to do with the education that I give them?

Here it is: through my program, I want to prepare my students to function effectively in a native English language classroom overseas. For those students who have already lived overseas and experienced an native English language classroom, my goal is to maintain the growth of their language skills so that if they someday return overseas to study, they will be able to reintegrate into that environment quickly and easily. For my students who have not lived or studied overseas, my goal is to prepare those students function in a regular English classroom.

Now, it would be unreasonable to expect my students to function with 100% effectiveness in a native English language classroom overseas, and such is not my goal. My goal, in simple terms, is for my students to be able to go into a regular classroom in an English speaking country and be able to function, that is, not to be completely lost. Now, what exactly does that mean? This means that my students should be able to: understand directions from the teacher; have the necessary vocabulary and reading level to comprehend their reading assignments: have the oral communication skills necessary to participate in class and contribute to the class on a regular basis; possess the writing ability necessary to complete their writing assignments in a way that their teacher can understand. This, in my opinion, is a reasonable goal.

Through my program, my NELP students are already gaining an outstanding level of English language comprehension in listening and reading. They are likewise learning to write effectively enough to make their message clearly understood. Our greatest weakness up to now has been in oral communication, because although my students have improved dramatically in their ability to make presentations in front of the class, many of them continue to struggle with spontaneous conversation. This is a weakness that I've begun to address this year by encouraging more student-to-student contact in class. Likewise, new speaking activities are stressing the ability to listen and reply. I hope in the coming months this weakness can be quickly remedied.

It is my hope that by establishing a clear and concrete goal for this program, the ability to live and study overseas, we can better focus the students' efforts in language development and further motivate students to take a greater responsibility in their own language development. In this way, students can better understand and feel a greater motivation to adhere to, my rule on English-Only in the classroom.. Also through this goal, I hope to broaden the students' interest in the idea of overseas study in the hope that, in high school, more students will choose to go abroad for a year to one of our sister schools in America. I would also very much like to begin working with administration to see if we can establish more sister-school relationships to open more opportunities for students to study abroad.

In our increasingly global society, the language skills, social skills, and broadened perspective that students gain through studying abroad will continue to increase in importance in their lives and careers.. Seishin's primary mission is to provide our students with an education, both academic and moral, that will prepare our students to be future leaders of society through whatever fields they ultimately choose to pursue. Establishing more focused and concrete goals for the NELP program can help me to guide my program to more effectively support and fulfill that mission.


Reading Exams - Soon to become more difficult


Reading comprehension questions in my NELP class have five questions. At the beginning of the year, I gave them three minutes, but I've been gradually cutting it back. We're down to two minutes on the clock, but most students are finished in about 90 seconds. We often have one or two who are done in 60 seconds, and we often have one or two still finishing at the two-minute mark, but in general: most finish in 90 seconds.

The same is true of our vocabulary quizzes. We have ten questions, all matching. Five match the word and the meaning. Five match words with the appropriate sentences they complete. Again, we're down to two minutes on the clock, but most students are done in about 90 seconds.

I've noticed recently that the students are finishing their English Beta exams too quickly. Most seem to take about half an hour for a 50-minute exam. Now, I've encouraged them to review their answers, to no avail.

I've also noticed a recent tendency among the students in my classes not to read their weekly required reading. Students are supposed to read the selection twice, and come to our Monday discussion class ready to talk about the reading, but we've been having a problem recently with students showing up to discussion unprepared to discuss. They have discussion questions to review, and should take notes, but when they're in groups or with partners to check their answers, a couple of students in each class have nothing to contribute. This makes it more difficult for the students who DO prepare. To me, it's unacceptable for students to merely show up to discussion only to be told the answers by their peers. They're supposed to discuss the answers and check the answers, but they can't do that if they haven't read the assigned reading. Ah, what to do ...

Well, I have a solution to both problems that I'm thinking of. I'm going to make the test longer.

Up to now, the reading test has consisted of vocabulary and reading comprehension. I feel that the skills involved in reading comprehension are more important than merely remembering a story. To that end, the readings for the test are different from the weekly assigned readings. However, in order to encourage more participation in the discussions, raise the level of challenge of the test, and make better use of our test time, I'm strongly considering adding one more section to the test, to make the test 25 percent longer.

This will mean that our English B: reading tests will now have 75 questions instead of 60. This will reward students who do their readings and participate in class discussions, while hopefully motivating all students to read more, prepare more, and participate more.

This idea is still technically under consideration, but considering that I've already modified the test format in the computer to accommodate the extra 15 questions: I'd call it 'a done deal'.