Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Abuses of Power
Back in June, I mentioned that my successor's successor had contacted me to get information about Mukaiyama SHS, where he would be teaching, (and presumably where he now is teaching at this moment.) At the time, I just thought the school hadn't given my successor his contact information yet, in one of those typical Japanese trickle-down information jam-ups. Now I know the whole story, though, and it really annoys me.

Here's what happened. Apparently, my successor never really got over the low point of culture shock where you find youself hating everything, before you begin the climb back up to some sort of acclimation. I kind of had a feeling she was going to have some shock in adjustment after reading her JET application essay. (Little known tidbit for future JETs: Everyone in the English department of your school, and probably any other teacher who can read English, will have seen your JET application. The whole thing. Essay, medical form, school history, everything.) However, I figured she was just making herself sound as impressive and gung-ho about her past teaching experiences as she could in her essay in order to make a good impression, and maybe her adjustment wouldn't be that hard. My first clue that this was not so was when she contacted me to complain about the quality of all the furnishings I had left behind for her, and demand that I reduce the price I was charging her for basically an entirely furnished apartment. (Note that I arrived to no bed, 1 pot, 1 pan, and 3 mismatched plastic plates.) I reduced the price, she eventually paid me, and I didn't really think much about her after that.

Through the first half of the school year there, I heard a few things here and there from D. whenever she ran into her. At the welcoming conference, the report was that she dressed skimpily and smoked too much. When they worked the intensive high school English camp together, she apparently accused me of having stolen the shelves out of the refrigerator and taken them back the US. (D. kindly pointed out to her that it had never had any shelves to begin with, and what could I have wanted them for anyway?) She was unpleasant to S., etc. Basically, my interpretation was that she never got over the fact that Japan was not like England, except with Japanese people. A shock, I'm sure.

[Above paragraph edited 9/30/04 for further anonymity.]

Now I've found out, though, that the reason I didn't really hear anything about her during the second half of the year is that she never went back to school after graduation in March. JET contracts run basically August-end of July, so that's pretty much 5 months of not working. She was still in Japan, though, and still technically a JET, because she was on "sick leave" for faking a mental breakdown. So that amounts to 5 months of getting paid a very handsome salary to sit around in an exotic foreign location and hang out at bars and soccer tournaments with her friends.

Whether the school knew she was faking or not is immaterial. They would have been within their rights in any case to cancel her contract and send her home. As I remember from the JET manual, they probably even could have charged her money for not completing her duties. But the fact is that schools in Japan are notoriously unwilling to terminate a contract, no matter how bad a JET is, and many of them are extremely tentative about refusing someone a chance to renew for a second year. Unfortunately, this means that some people choose to take advantage of them, and therefore the program.

JETs may complain about their teaching duties or the schools they work at, but if you really stop to think about it, the JET program is perhaps the most successful EFL supplemental education program in existence. Nothing on nearly such a national scale is in place in any other country that I know of. For all that Japanese high schoolers do not leave school speaking marvelous English, they do leave school having actually met and had instruction from a foreign teacher, which I have no doubt has a much bigger impact on their lives and education than we in the far more culturally diverse countries of the world can imagine. The biggest thing about the JET program is, I think, that it shows the Japanese government is actually trying. It has put a broad scale educational reform into place, and followed up on it full force. It has flaws, but they did it.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that JET stands for Japan Exchange & Teaching. It is an exchange program. The program is being more than generous to provide an opportunity for young adults from all over the world to come and live, work, experience life in another country in a very independent way, and be paid well for it. Most other exchange programs pay the barest of stipends for the same amount of work. What JET gives its participants is much more than it is in any way required to by the standards of other programs, most of which came into being after JET was established anyway. The problem is when people start to think they are entitled to perfection, that the program should be grateful to them that they even deigned to apply, and that their schools should allow them to do whatever they want, for as long as they want, until they feel like going home.

Being a participant on the JET program is a privilege. It is a highly selective program that is trying to fulfill the educational goals of a nation while offering very nice benefits to the teachers willing to go. When a person is accepted to the program, the person enters into a contract which states that for those benefits, s/he will do their best at what is, in the end, a rather easy job with little real accountability. The program cannot work if the participants do not do their share, and it will surely fail if the participants seek only to take advantage of it.

It is tempting, once one is in Japan, to think that the experience is all about oneself. Why did I come to Japan? What am I going to get out of it? How do I feel right now? How is life here treating me? It is easy to feel a sense of isolation in a workplace where one is most definitely the minority, and in that isolation, easy to forget that all those Japanese people are also being affected by you. The JET program is a two-way street. It offers ALTs an opportunity to go to Japan, but it brings the ALTs to Japan to give its own teachers and students a richer opportunity to learn.

It angers me 1) that anyone would seek to take such advantage of a program like this, and 2) that I was succeeded in Japan by such a person. I cannot help but think that her actions have tainted whatever legacy I might have left there myself. I tried my best, and I loved my schools, and they did not deserve her.

Monday, September 27, 2004

The Woes of Teaching
It occurred to me today that I might like the concept of working more if my work actually stayed at work. Instead, it follows me home every afternoon, every night, and most weekends. Why? Because I have to grade things.

I hate grading things. It was great in Japan, where I got to go into the classroom, do all the fun parts of teaching, and then never had to worry about effectively grading all 800 of my students, because that was the real teacher's job. Now, however, I am the real teacher. Thank god I only have 14 students. (Technically 14, that is. The guy who hasn't shown up since the first week doesn't count. He's quite easy to grade, as it turns out.)

As I noted a while ago in a comment over on Blinger's site, a good, effective test is rarely easy to grade, and it turns out the same goes for pretty much every assignment I actually give points for, as opposed to a simple effort-check. Why do I have to try to be a good teacher? Why can't I just not care and give them stupid multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank worksheets all the time? Life would be much easier if I weren't a perfectionist, or didn't take any pride in doing my job halfway decently.

We had a reading/writing "skills group" meeting this afternoon, in which our supervisor introduced the concept of a process approach to reading instruction. He asked the only permanent staff member in the group if she had ever used this approach, and she said no, so I got to pipe up and say that I used it a lot, and was in fact using it in my class right now. (The process approach to reading is basically making sure you guide the students through pre-reading activities to activate and build schema, during reading activities to focus them on the task, and post-reading activities to make sure they got it.) I got to show off the materials I've been making, explain all the activities I've been assigning the students, and basically just look smart. I like doing stuff like that. I don't care that what I'm doing corresponds to some buzzword of the moment; I just like feeling like I'm teaching effectively. I like it when the things I do in class tie in well to the homework I give the students, all of which is actually working toward the goal of getting them to learn something.

I hate the feeling that I'm giving them homework assignments just so I'll have something to put down in the grade book. Of course, if I never grade their written homework, they don't think there's any point in doing it, and they'd just stop doing it altogether. I hate spending the time writing in corrections and little comments on homework assignments without any feeling that they're paying attention to them after I give the assignments back.

Maybe this whole thing would be easier if we were teaching these classes more like what I consider regular college foreign language classes, by which I mean 3 times a week and with more of a focus on a content theme to unify the whole experience, and less of an emphasis (for the students) on the discrete skills. Then maybe I'd feel like I had more focus in the assignments I give that are not related to the out-of-textbook units I construct on my own.

And thus we circle back around, once again, to my usual lament about content- vs. skills-based teaching, so I think I'll just stop here. I have papers to correct, after all.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

ESL Blogging, Take 2
Right, enough of this personal life stuff; let's get back to my job!

This semester, as I may have mentioned, I've moved up another level in the ELC and am teaching Level 3. I'm beginning to think that the real dividing line is between Levels 2 and 3. My new students are awesome. Not perfect by any means, because then I wouldn't have a job, but they seem to have so much more to say! They're at that stage where vocabulary and grammar are finally catching up with all the thoughts they actually have in their brains, and they can actually really begin to use English to express themselves meaningfully.

Hence, I believe, their seemingly much more enthusiastic reaction to the blogging experiment. Here's this semester's class blog list. Read and comment as you wish, if anyone is out there. Really, I have been quite pleased with what they've posted so far, and we're only a week into the project. Several of them had really given some serious thought to what they wanted to write about.

The main difference in the blogging project this semester is that I gave them a little more guidance in what I wanted them to write about. Or rather, apparent guidance. Really, I just said they had to write about their lives in the US. In reality, this does not restrict what they write about at all. However, the first chapter of their annoying NorthStar textbook was nicely about newspaper reporting ethics, which I turned into a unit on writing, reporting, and reporting on one's own life, with one's own perspective. Then I had them look at some blogs online and think about how they might talk about their experiences in the US in a way that would be interesting and educational to others.

Since our current unit is about reasons people immigrate and personal reactions to living in a new country, I think I can keep the subject alive in their minds for long enough for them to get into a good blogging groove. As I said, it's only the first week, so I'm sure I'll be revisiting this issue again during the semester.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Milkshake Ears
My first clear memory of my granddaddy is from McDonald's. I was about 5, and he was taking me up to Virginia to see my grandma, who was up there taking care of her father. We had stopped at McDonald's for lunch, and he got me a milkshake. This was back in the days when milkshakes were milkshakes, and thus still made very thick, and so I sat there, sucking very hard on my straw, trying valiantly to get at that chocolate goodness.

"Don't suck too hard," said Granddaddy.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because," he said, in all seriousness, "if you suck too hard, you'll suck your ears inside your head."

"Really?" I said, incredulous. "How do you know?" (I was a suspicious child.)

"I did it before."

Ah-hah! Now I had him. Granddaddy very clearly had ears. "How did you get them back out?" I asked.

"I held my nose and blew real hard." He proceeded to demonstrate, and that was it. I was convinced. If he had done it before, and knew the proper procedure to get his ears back out again, it must be true. I very slowly drank the rest of my milkshake, with big pauses to let it melt enough to suck more easily through the straw.


My granddaddy died shortly before 11:00, Wednesday night. We buried him today. I didn't make it home in time for the visitation last night, thanks to Hurricane Ivan, but I here are the memories of Granddaddy that I would have liked to share.

Granddaddy was a very patient man. He was red-green colorblind, and yet he would let me sit in front of him for hours, conducting "eye tests" with paint color strips so I could laugh and laugh whenever he couldn't tell purple from blue. Since purple was my favorite color, not being able to see it was a fascinating concept to me.

Granddaddy was an architect. By profession, he designed agricultural buildings, but in reality, he designed and built the houses for all four of his children, the house those children grew up in, and the house he and my grandmother decided to build after their family kept extending into grandchildren and they wanted more space, not to mention houses for friends and the extension of the sanctuary of my grandparents' church. I loved the house he designed for my mother and father. My mother was pregnant with me when she was helping build it. Years later, when my cousin and I were old enough to appreciate such things, he built both of us scale model doll houses of the houses he built for our parents. I always wanted him to design a house for me.

Granddaddy never understood what it meant to be retired, a trait it seems all of my grandparents share. When we went to the beach, he always had to be fixing something or making improvements. I think the shower at the beach cottage has possibly the most over-designed shower curtain ever, all in the name of keeping water inside the shower and not on the floor. (The secret: weights and possibly magnets sewn into a bottom seam.) He also spent the entire month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, not getting ready for the relaxing holidays, but organizing and running the Christmas tree sale at the church, often spending the night on the lot to discourage theft. When I was in 6th grade and faking sick a lot, I always tried to arrange it so my grandma would be the one to pick me up at school during that month, so I could spend the afternoon at the Christmas tree lot in the camper trailer with Granddaddy.

Granddaddy gardened. He gave me grapes right off the vine, with thick skins, sweet insides, and big seeds.

He cut wood for the woodstove in the living room that heated the whole main floor of the house during the Christmas holidays. He would tease the grandsons if they couldn't carry as much wood in one load as he could.

He showed his love for Grandma by building her things. He built her a huge hillside of flowerbeds at the "new" house, with a waterfall at the curve, flowing down to a fishpond. He bought her a new glass storm door for Christmas, even though he thought it wasn't a very good present, because it was what she wanted. He also got her a very annoying motion-sensor singing and dancing Santa Claus, because he knew it would make her happy.

I cannot even begin to say all the things I loved about my granddaddy, or begin to enumerate all the things he did for his family and for others that made him so loved. These past several years of watching his Parkinson's get progressively worse has been very hard, but without a doubt it was far harder for him, always active and always working with his hands, than it was for the rest of us. I know it must have been a relief to him to finally feel at peace again, but he will be so missed. He will be missed.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Linguistic Framing
... as it applies to golf advice.

I think I need help. Last week, my uncle sent me the link to the excerpt from Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant, which got me thinking about linguistic framing somewhere in the back of my mind.

Yesterday, I went to tag along as Lee played golf for the first time in a year with his dad and his cousin's husband. For obvious reasons, they spent a lot of time giving him advice, most of which consisted of repeating, "Keep your head down." My brain, always seeking to entertain itself, proceeded to analyze the following situation:

Lee is taking a few practice swings. Each one is fine, and the only advice he receives is, "Keep your head down."

Lee then moves up to the ball, prepares to swing, and receives the advice, "Don't watch the ball!" What does he do? Lifts his head up to watch the ball, despite the fact that for the 3 previous swings he didn't lift his head at all.

My brain concluded that this was a linguistic framing problem, and I spent the rest of the golf outing pondering whether one could do a linguistic analysis of successful vs. non-successful verbal coaching strategies.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

or, The Importance of Words

A few weeks ago, I saw Hero. Actually, I saw it for the second time, (Lee has a Chinese DVD of it, since it did come out 2-3 years ago there,) but this time on the big screen. I loved it. It's fabulous. If you haven't seen it, you should, and not just because you get to see Jet Li mostly naked.

Besides the colors, and the fighting, and the Jet Li-ness, I very much appreciated the movie's use of language. Words are very important in the story, especially in their written form. Nameless strives to learn the heart of Broken Sword to know his fighting style in advance by studying Broken Sword's calligraphy. Broken Sword convinces Nameless of his argument by writing two characters in the desert and then walking away. Qin Shihuang suddenly comprehends the lesson Broken Sword, through Nameless, has been trying to teach him by looking at the same calligraphed painting Nameless had studied so intently earlier. It was funny to me that they managed to show the (presumably fictitious) pivotal moment when Qin Shihuang realizes that the whole Chinese writing system is hopelessly complex, and vows to simplify it. Hear, hear!

I also had fun comparing the subtitles on the two different versions I saw. There is obviously a lot of room for subtitlers to make artistic decisions when translating. The biggest difference was the way they chose to deal with the two words Broken Sword writes in the desert. On the DVD, they decided that the best translation of the two words into English required that there actually be three words, which meant they in turn had to mistranslate the dramatic pronouncement that he wrote "two words." In the movie, they translated the two words as just two words, but the translation was worse, verging on completely inaccurate if you have any knowledge of Chinese characters.

Now that I've either given too many things away, or completely confused everyone, you should go see the movie, so you'll know what I'm talking about. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Cultural Comparisons
Whee! Have internet connection, will write amusing cultural comparisons website! This is what comes of having both too much time, creativity, and international living experience: we get Ernie French's 3-way comparison chart of life in New Jersey, Japan, and China.


I'm half-tempted to do one, too, but I'd need to spend more time in China first. Oooh, if I ever have time to think up all the categories I want, I could do a 4-way one some day, with the US, Chile, Japan, and China.

I have seen my future. It is geeky.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Mmm, linguistics
So far, today has been an interesting day inside my own head, at least as far as considering the future of my education. I have been very seriously considering either a) not completing my MA Linguistics degree or b) seeing if I can put the second half off for a year, so that I can go run off to the other side of the world and teach in an exotic locale once again. I was being very, very tempted in that direction, to the point that it had begun to seem inevitable. But today I started to be reminded of why I actually really want to do a linguistics degree, and the MA TESOL was more a degree of convenience.

It started this morning in Semantics & Pragmatics. We're just brushing lightly at the surface of lexical semantics as of yet, but to me, the class is at that point where everything the teacher introduces is fabulous new knowledge to be written down and mentally filed with all those previously learned linguistic terms that it all so neatly fits with. It's an extension of knowledge I already had, and what I wanted to be learning about last year. My brain feels like it has been thirsty for such a long time, and I am finally giving it water. Ah, soak it in.

After class, though, some of my fellow TESOLers were talking about how little sense the class made to them, and how much taking the class reconfirmed their decisions not to double in linguistics. I decided that perhaps I should remain silent in such a conversation, and instead pondered what exactly it should mean to me that my own sentiments were pretty much the exact opposite of theirs. This stuff makes sense to me, by george. I need to learn more!

Then, after lunch, I made what is perhaps an unhealthy discovery: MSU's electronic resources give me access to Studies in Second Language Acquisition. I have already wasted two hours of what was meant to be productive time just looking at all the articles I want a copy of and reviews of books I don't need but most definitely want. I'm already behind on my reading!* I can't afford to do this to myself! But I want to, oh, how I want to.

Oh, and there's also this article, discovered by a circuitous route not worth detailing, on The Science of Word Recognition.

If only I could just have all the time in the world to read, or alternatively, the money to support both my book habit and my life of voracious reading. Oh, and traveling. I need to win the lottery. That is my only hope.

*I suppose that it is worth noting that none of this reading that I am behind on is in any way required for my classes. Somehow, it is still all linguistically related.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Fun Little Logic Puzzle
In Semantics & Pragmatics today, we got a little puzzle meant to demonstrate the distinction between use and mention.*

Try to figure out why the following sentence is true:

One word is a phrase of 2 words, but every English phrase has 3 words.

*That probably makes no sense to non-linguists and/or non-philosophers. Don't worry about it. Pay attention to the puzzle.

License Plate Game
As if there wasn't already enough evidence that I am a giant nerd, I feel I must share perhaps the single most exciting thing that happened to me yesterday: I saw an Alaskan license plate.

You must understand, I was raised on playing the license plate game on long car trips. Every spring break, my brother and I would go to visit our grandparents in Florida. This is perhaps the single best route in the country to spot the greatest variety of state license plates, thanks to all the snowbirds flocking that direction. But no matter how many states we got, Alaska and Hawaii remained elusive. To this day, to spot an Alaska plate is like finding gold. I may have to start my own list of license plates spotted now, just to take advantage of this.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Back to School
The new school year is officially here. I actually had to teach my first full class today. Whee, self-introductions! I am teaching Level 3 this semester, to continue the trend of teaching the next higher level every semester I am in the ELC. We shall see if I can score a perfect rounding out by getting Level 4 next semester, which is supposed to be my last semester of being eligible to teach in the ELC. Once again, I am teaching reading and writing, and I am full of what I hope will be workable ideas that do a lot to supplement our rather sad textbooks. This also means a continuation of the blog project, so I will have an opportunity to refine and perhaps expand that assignment into something more inspirational for the students.

Speaking of the blog project, just yesterday I got an email from Hans, my best blogger from last semester. He said he missed my class. Awwww... I asked him if he intended to continue writing on his blog for practice. Somehow I doubt it, as it is his last semester in college, but I can always hope.

In addition to my teaching duties, I have also now attended all of this semester's graduate classes at least once. I am currently taking Phonetics & Phonology, Semantics & Pragmatics, and Research Methods. I'm hoping they'll all be fairly interesting. Phonetics I've actually been to twice now, and I'm assuming it has to get harder than this. When she asked how one classifies vowel sounds, I felt like I was back in China, teaching the doctors about the different places of articulation.

Semantics & Pragmatics has the potential to be very interesting, but it also has the potential to head far further into the realm of linguistic philosophy than I really want to go. Then again, maybe I am still be biased by that one exceedingly boring linguistic philosophy lecture that I made the mistake of going to at Grinnell. That man had spent so long thinking about the functions of language, he had ceased to be able to use it communicatively. Very depressing.

Research Methods seems like it will at least be informative, and perhaps character-building. I cannot emphasize enough how much I hate the grad school late-afternoon-into-evening time slot of 3-6pm, because it eats my entire productive evening. I had to call the karate school and tell them I couldn't come at all this semester because of that class. Nrgh! Oh, well. Maybe, if I'm clever, I can keep enough floor space in my new, sparse living room to actually practice. Then again, maybe I'll fill it all up with piles of papers and books and whatnot.

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