From August 2008-2009, I participated in The Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, a program run by the Japanese government that recruits people worldwide to teach English and promote international exchange in Japanese public schools. I lived in a small Japanese village for a full year and taught in four different local schools with students ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. I was responsible for creating and teaching all lessons at the kindergarten and elementary levels, and for designing and implementing language learning materials and games at the middle school level.
Because Japan’s educational system is skewed toward preparing students for exams, English language classes are typically rather dry, with an emphasis on memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules and reciting of prefabricated skits and dialogues. Not much emphasis is placed on creating and using functional language in novel situations, so I tried to design most activities or lesson units around that goal, with the secondary aim of introducing different aspects of American culture.
- The Mummy Classroom: Around Halloween, some of my elementary classes had just finished a unit on parts of the body. Because Japan does not generally celebrate Halloween, I decided to combine review of body parts with a chance to create a Halloween costume. First, I told them about the holiday customs, and then gave them a chance to wrap each other up like mummies. The children worked in teams for the costuming, having to request in English for their teammates to wrap up different parts of their body. Once they were at least partially mummified, they could come up to me to “trick-or-treat” for some candy, followed by short conversation in English.
- Christmas Cards: To practice some of the conventions of English letter writing, middle school students composed Christmas cards in late December. Through making a card for the recipient of their choice, they were able to explore some of the stylistic differences between written and spoken English, as well as practice typical letter structure. During these card-making sessions, we also explored international differences between Christmas traditions.
- Making Comics: At the end of the school year, the eighth graders had finished taking their high school entrance exams. As a kind of reward, I wanted to plan a unit that would be entertaining and relaxed, while still giving students the opportunity to practice functional English. I decided to do a short unit on humor and comics in particular. We talked about Japanese and American humor styles and differences between the two nations’ comics. Near the end of the unit, I brought in several comic strips from newspapers and the Internet, edited so that all word bubbles were blank. I had the students develop their own dialogue to fit the blank comics, and they were able to share their completed comics with friends and classmates.
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