Today’s classes

This morning I hung back from trying to negotiate with students: I just went in and told them what to do. Why? Low energy this morning (a bad night’s sleep). Why does it take more energy to do something different?

In the first class, I had students write down as many words/phrases as they could remember. But what I really wanted them to do, was think about how they could remember words or things they had learned; is it useful to be forced to recall them? Would it be more effective if they did this themselves? Or cooperated with a partner? These are some of the kinds of cognitive tools I think would be useful for them, tools they need in order to take charge of their own learning. These are the kinds of things that normally they don’t have to think about because the teacher does it for them.

It is partly a problem of language: they cannot understand what I mean if I just explain the above in English, and I did not have the Japanese ready.

In Tuesday’s class, I had given them a number of conversations about Japan (copied from a textbook that is now completely out of date and out of print, but which I have found quite useful over the 20 years or so since I first came across it (tho there is an updated version now available): 新・文化比較の英会話

I gave them a choice about which conversation they used for learning English. I then asked them to create a kind of quiz or game using the English in this conversation. (We had previously created some vocab cards using blank business card sheets and pictures of vegetables; they then used these cards to play a game like the Japanese “karuta”). They had not been able to do this, because they did not understand what I meant by a “quiz” or “activity” (at least, that was my explanation of their blank-faced looks and lack of movement). So I had given them 2 suggestions: cut out the lines of the dialogue, shuffle them up and give them to the group next door to re-arrange/re-create the conversation. Another suggestion was to cut some words out, then give the cloze to the group next door, or to cut all the words out and have another group re-construct the dialogue.

This time I had them use the conversations in a different, more obvious way: say it with a partner, memorize it, then record yourselves saying the conversation. (Unfortunately, my Walkman MD recorder ran out of batteries about 2 seconds into the first pair’s performance!). Instead of recording them, I just went to them and listened to them saying it. Several groups asked why I wasn’t recording them. Did I notice some disappointment? One of the reasons for having them record themselves was to introduce the possibility of using a recording of yourself as a way or step towards evaluating your speaking ability. However, I was unable to present that possibility, or that question, to them today.

I then suggested they make some changes to the conversation they had just performed: change the names and places to personalize it.

Another activity we did was to brainstorm Japanese autumn dishes, then (making use of the vegetable vocab cards we’d made the previous class) to list their ingredients. They then used the cards in pairs, each taking it in turns to pick up a card and ask their partner a question using the vegetable on the card. As they had seemed stumped by the vagueness of “make a question USING the vegetable on the card”, I had elicited some staple sentences and written them on the board, e.g.: “What dish can you make with/using ….?”

Finally, I had asked them to make a record for today, by listing what activities they had with what materials, and to include a comment about the usefulness of what they had done, seen in the light of their goal of improving their ability to speak in English about things Japanese.

I also set them a homework question: “What do you need to learn English?” As they wrote this down on their record sheets, I did not collect the record sheets, so have not yet read their comments.

Until now the quality of the comments/self-reflections, call them what I will, have been pretty useless: “I want to be able to speak better in English”, that kind of thing. I think it is partly the way I ask the question, or my explanation of what “self-reflection” can include. I translated “self-reflection” as “hansei” in Japanese, and I noticed that what I get are a lot of pretty negative, or rather self-deprecatory or even self-flagellative, comments! Is this what is expected from a Japanese “hansei”? Like the self-reflections that were “expected” from people in China during the Cultural Revolution?

It was only this afternoon that I finally got the kinds of self-reflections I have been looking for, and the reason for that was that I finally took the time and trouble to be a great deal more explicit about what I was looking for:

“I want you to think about the activities you are doing”, I said (in Japanese). “I have introduced you, in these classes, to different kinds of activities and different materials. We have used the video/movie (Chicken Run) in a number of ways: watching only; watching and making notes on the story; summarising the story in English; reading the transcript; matching the lines to the characters that say them; transcribing the Japanese subtitles (not translating); repeating the lines after the DVD and recording our repetitions onto a tape; listening to that tape. In the light of your goal, of your English learning, what do you think of these various activities? How useful (or not useful) are they? Which ones do you like?”

After a class in which we had done most of the above (this week I had given them a 1-page transcription of about 10 lines from the Chicken Run movie which we are watching, with a blank column on the left where they are to write in the name of the character that says those lines, and a blank line underneath each line of dialogue where they transcribe the Japanese subtitles; I had also had them listen, read and repeat each line of dialogue, recording their voices onto tape, then listening to themselves), I asked them to email me their “self-reflections”. I have read them, and will translate a few here later.

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