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earthquake education English Hokkaido Middle School

Sapporo Conference Presentation

This is a short post to quickly provide the PDF version of the presentation that I and my JTL and wife Yoshie Holland and I presented at this year’s Sapporo ALT Skills Conference. The topic was “Cooperating and Communicating Effectively” at the Junior High Level. Check out the slideshow below, or click here to load the 7.6 mb .pdf file.

Holland2012sapporo from seanmisen
Categories
education Japan JET Middle School Tokyo

Depressing Elephants

This year, the Sunshine English textbooks were updated.  One of the new stories is called “Faithful Elephants” and is about the sad end of three elephants at  Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo during WWII:

Many years ago, there were three wonderful elephants at the Ueno Zoo.  The elephants were John, Tonky, and Wanly.  They could do tricks.  Visitors at the zoo loved the see their tricks.

Japan was at war then.  Little by little the situation was getting worse.  Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day.

If bombs hit the zoo, dangerous animals will get away and harm the people of Tokyo.  So, the Army ordered the zoo to kill all the dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, and bears.  Before long, it was time to kill the three elephants.  The zookeepers did not want to kill them, but they had to follow the orders.  They started with John.

John loved potatoes, so they gave him poisoned potatoes together with good ones.  But John was so clever that he ate only the good potatoes.  Then they tried to give him an injection.  But John’s skin was too hard for the needles to go through.

When this did not work, they decided to give him no food.  Poor John died in seventeen days.

Then the time came for Tonky and Wanly.  They always looked at people with loving eyes. They were sweet and gentle-hearted.

However, the elephant keepers had to stop giving them anything to eat.  When a keeper walked by their cage, they stood up and raised their trunks high in the air.  They did their tricks because they were hoping to get food and water.

Everyone at the zoo said with tears, “If they can live a few more days, the war may be over and they will be saved.”

Tonky and Wanly could no longer move.  They lay down on the ground, but their eyes were beautiful.

When an elephant keeper came to see them, they looked so weak.  He became too sad to go back to see them.

Bombs continued to drop in Tokyo.  And a few days later, Tonky and Wanly died.  Later, when the bodies of the elephants were examined, nothing was found in their stomachs — not even one drop of water.

Today, the three elephants rest in peace with other animals under the monument at the Ueno Zoo.

There are many, many things wrong with this story.  Some grammatical, some stylistic.

However, I’m not concerned with these here.  What I find unacceptable about this story’s inclusion in a textbook approved by MEXT (The Ministry of Education) is that it contains blatant historical inaccuracies, that when taken into consideration, completely undermine the importance of this story as a (purported) piece of history.

First, the story makes several statements or allusions that are simply untrue.  In the second paragraph it says:

Bombs were dropped on Tokyo every day.

This is false.

Consider this timeline (which I will refer to later on).

  • December 1941 – Attack on Pearl Harbor
  • April 1942 – Doolittle bombing raids on Tokyo
  • August 13th, 1943 – Starvation of John the elephant begins.
  • August 1943 – John dies.
  • September 4th, 1943 – A memorial service is held for all three elephants.
  • September 11th, 1943 – Wanly the elephant dies.
  • September 23rd, 1943 – Tonky the elephant dies.
  • June 15th, 1944 – B-29 Raid on Kyushu launched from China.  The first raid on the Japanese home islands since the Doolittle raid.
  • Nov 17th, 1944 – B-29 raids on Tokyo begin and last until Japan’s surrender.

As you can see from this timeline, Tokyo was not bombed for a full two and a half years during the war – the time that the textbook alleges “Bombs were dropped on Tokyo everyday.”

This fact exposes another inconsistency in the story.  The very next paragraph says:

If bombs hit the zoo, dangerous animals will get away and harm the people of Tokyo.

Since there were no bombs being dropped, this premise is false.  The paragraph continues:

So, the Army ordered the zoo to kill all the dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, and bears.

If there were no bombs falling on Tokyo, then what was the reason for the killing of the animals?  Even if there were bombs falling, if the bombs landed close enough to damage and open the metal cages, surely this would also injure or kill the animals.  If their safety alone was the concern, then they could have been relocated to the countryside.  There certainly could be other explanations – lack of food, lack of funds to maintain the zoo. After all, this was war.  But of course, as in war, the true story of why, how, and by whom, the elephants were ordered to be killed is more complicated.

A few google searches revealed two useful resources on this incident.  This article in Japan Focus, which chronicles in great detail the power struggle and series of events that led to the elephants’ deaths, and this webpage (in Japanese) devoted to the treatment of zoo animals in wartime.  They both delve much further into the motivations and chronology than I will here in this textbook critique, but their main points are very important:

  • The governor of Tokyo at that time, Odachi Shigeo, had recently returned from a posting as governor of Singapore, where he had seen the war firsthand.  He felt that the people of Japan needed a shock to wake them up to the realities of war, and chose to use the elephants as martyrs to this end.  As zoo director Koda wrote in his memoir about Governor Odachi, “when he returned to the motherland to become governor of Tokyo and saw the attitude of the people, he seems to have felt keenly that he had to open the people’s eyes to the fact that this was not the way to go, that war was not such an easy affair.” (市長をしていた大達さんは、内地に帰って、勝ち戦と思い戦争の怖さも知らないでいる国民に自覚させるために、動物園の猛獣を処分することによって警告を発したのでしょう。)
  • Not only had Fukuda, the acting director of the zoo after Koga, “confidently listed” the amounts of poison needed to kill the elephants, but zoo records show that Tonky had been given injections of medicines and had had blood taken soon before his starvation.  The story in the textbook says “Then they tried to give him an injection.  But John’s skin was too hard for the needles to go through,” which seems unreasonable considering that injections and blood samples had been easily administered on Tonky.  Why was John different?
  • The story fails to explain why John was the first to go.  As it turns out, John had been a violent elephant, and this was the reason for putting him down first.  The zoo director “decided to put down the violent male elephant, John, and his starvation was begun on August 13th. (暴れん坊のオスのゾウ「ジョン」を処分することを決めて、8月13日より絶食を行う。)
  • Maybe most horrible of all these revelations is that on September 4th, 1943, after John had died, and while Tonky and Wanly were still undergoing forced starvation, a public memorial service was held at the zoo to mourn the deaths of the three elephants.  I repeat: this was while Tonky and Wanly were still starving nearby.

These three elephants may have been wonderful animals.  It’s sad that they ended up as ancillary victims of a human war.  But the true tragedy of this story is not simply in their deaths, but in how they died, in the equivocating, cruel methods used to kill them.  It is completely unexplained in the story, and both of the resources that I found, why the elephants were simply not shot.  Would this not have been more satisfactory, both to the army and the zookeepers?  Excuses are made in the diaries of the zoo director Fukuda, that the noise of the gunshots would “scare” the population.  But, was this not the intended effect?  To “open the people’s eyes” to the hard realities of war?

Due to the textbook’s simplicity and gross inaccuracy, the true, complicated nature of this story as a piece of history, and its moral dimensions of human cruelty, are skirted and warped into a sentimental and dangerously simplified platitude on war and peace.  This whitewashed version of history does not belong in an nationally approved curriculum.  It certainly has no place in an English textbook.

If you use this textbook, and are asked to model-read or deal with this story in class, make sure your students know the whole story.  Help them be critical thinkers.  Help them ask questions about this story and about their own history.  Help them understand not only the story in English, but the critical and skeptical stance that one should bring to any encounter with a new text.


Addenda:

  • Above is a simple presentation that I made and showed to our 3rd grade students after their final reading of the story.  I would recommend showing it to them after their first reading, and then have them reconsider the story with this new information in their subsequent readings.
  • It seems that this story book is somewhat well known in American education circles as well, in the book Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya.  There seem to be lesson plans for this on the internet for the elementary school  level.  I would suggest finding another story that deals with Japan and the war.
Categories
education English Middle School Saroma

Write Your Own Calvin Comic

This is a lesson I designed and did several years ago and have done a few times since.  I introduce Calvin and Hobbes, explain who the main characters are, and then give the students a handout with a few comics on the front.  We read the comics together and I try to make sure they understand the meaning.  Of course, the explanation sort of removes the humor from them, but that’s OK, because the fun part comes next.

On the back of each sheet, there is a different comic printed, one for each pair of students in class.  The comic has had the wording removed from the speech bubbles, so their goal is to assess the comic, try to figure out what is happening or what the author intended, and then either write something they think fits in the bubbles, or take it in a different direction.  Sometimes students ask if they can add drawings to the comic, or extra bubbles not originally there.  I say sure, why not.

Here are some selections of comics that last year’s 3rd graders at Saroma Junior High did (9th graders).  They’re gone and graduated now, but I’ve kept the comics they wrote, and per a request from a friend, I’ve scanned the best ones: (Images link to larger versions, and are browsable using the arrows)

Categories
education Japanese Sapporo

Why The JLPT N1 Was Worth it Even if I Failed.

Yesterday I took the highest level test of the JLPT, level N1, in Sapporo at Hokkaido University. The test consists of three main sections: A language knowledge section and a reading comprehension section administered in one 110 minute session, and a 60 minute listening section.

I took and passed the old level 2 (barely) JLPT in December 2008, after having passed level 3 in December of 2007. I began studying Japanese for the first time in the fall of 2004. I felt that retaking level two, even if it is the new, modified level N2, was sort of chickening out. Why take a test I’ve already passed? On one hand, I don’t have much faith in what these tests say about my Japanese ability. They measure only receptive skills, and no productive skills, which are 50% (or more) of one’s language proficiency, and arguably the harder part. On the other hand, not taking the test seriously as a measure of ability gave me an excuse for my unwillingness to commit to the kind of serious self-study necessary to actually pass it. So, this fall, after a visit back to America that caused me to question where I am going next in life, I decided to go for level N1, to see where I have come in these 7 years studying Japanese, travelling to Japan, living in Japan, marrying a Japanese person, and seeing no end in sight for my connection to this country.

First, I should admit that even after I registered for the test in August, I did not do anything more than cursory browsing of study guides until the week before the test, when of course I panicked, realized that if I were still going to take the test, I would be going in with whatever knowledge I just happened to have, along with whatever I could practically cram into my head in four or five days.

I should also plug some JLPT study guides that I purchased and found extremely useful, not just as a prep course for the test, but as a reference for anyone studying Japanese. These are the 総合まとめ “Sogo-matome” series of textbooks that are written specifically for the new N- prefixed tests. I feel that these textbooks present the vast amount of testable material in a very logically structured, friendly way. I bought the Kanji, Grammar, and Vocabulary books. There were many times while studying that I realized there was a word that I knew, and the kanji for which I also knew, but never knew that kanji had that reading. Big “Doh” moment. There were also English glosses of all example sentences – many N1 textbooks profess to teach all definitions in an intuitive way, with all definitions and explanations in Japanese. I’m almost there, but not quite yet. Overall, the textbooks are something that I feel are useful to have on my bookshelf even if I am not actively studying for this particular test. In addition to the three that I bought, there are also volumes on Reading Comprehension, Listening Comprehension, and a book containing two full practice tests that I plan on buying as well.

Ok, so, I didn’t bother studying, I don’t feel the test is a good measure of my overall ability, and I don’t even plan to do anything specific with the certification. Why was it worth the effort? Well, I think because sometimes we have to put ourselves in situations where we have no choice but to do what the situation requires. Wow, that’s circular reasoning. Let me be more clear. If I did not take this test, I would have risked continuing to float through my life only learning those words which I stumble over or happen to notice, getting along just fine with the Japanese that I have. The test made me realize how much I don’t know, and that I actually want to remedy that. As one studies more specialized vocabulary and grammar, the applicable usefulness of that knowledge becomes inverse to the effort required to attain it. I think it’s easy to become complacent, satisfied with the significant effort required to reach an intermediate level, and lose sight or put out of mind of all of the things which you don’t understand. The JLPT tested a wide variety of words used in politics, industry, scholarship, most of which are outside of my comfort zone (I do happen to know lots of words relating to primary education). I want my Japanese to be more versatile, deeper, and more refined.

Basically, taking N1 reminded me why I began studying Japanese in the first place and why I really do want to continue studying. It humbled me to realize the hundreds of kanji and thousands of combinations that I still know nothing of, but encouraged me to know that my listening was remarkably good, and that my reading just needed to be much faster. It was enlightening, and it made me feel like I knew where I was in in my long, arduous slog through the Jungle of Nihongo.

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Let’s studying.

Categories
education Middle School

English Used at School

Now that the days have become cooler, the heaters are regularly turned on in the classrooms at my junior high school. Since the thermostat controls are all centrally located in the teachers room, we have to call down there and ask someone to flick the switch to off for our particular classroom. Often, when this becomes necessary in one of my English classes, I will call down to the room and sort of surprise whoever answers by making my request in English. Sometimes the teacher will make a student do this. Today, for the first time, I was in the teachers’ room while this happened. The English teacher who teaches 1st grade English, and prefers not to teach with me, had a student call down and ask. The nurse answered and freaked out, handing the phone off to the secretary who by now is used to that sort of thing.

So, now that this has become a “thing” at my school, I wonder why I’m so bored of it. In principle, the idea of using English in a way that even ever so slightly breaks the typical bounds of the classroom environment (all the way downstairs!) is a good thing. However, I don’t expect that they will start requiring class leaders to use English when asking about preparations for the next day’s class, or conducting daily business in their homerooms. Why? It’s just too hard. In principle, this is a good thing, but I can’t help but feel that it is treated as a novelty (Oh my god, he’s speaking English, on the phone, to a teacher!) and not as something that everyone should be able to do.

One of the major failings of English education in Japan, by no fault necessarily of the teachers, is its inability to demonstrate the use of English in a normal or casual way, to show students that “yes, this is something that you can do too.” The common criticism is that there is not enough emphasis on a “communicative” approach to teaching. While valid, there is a more encompassing criticism in regard to the attitude taken toward English: It’s always set up as a sort of performance, rarely given utility or any plausible application. Obviously, that can be hard to do at the junior high level, given the balance required by testing and national standards and the simple rigor of the bukatsu-laden schoolday. Which is why my jaded view of these phone calls puzzles me. I should be embracing it as a tiny step toward my view of an ideal introduction of English. But I find myself rolling my eyes at it because I see it becoming another way English is treated as an other, as something else that exists in another world beyond the consciousness of everyday life.

Categories
education elementary English Murakami

Curricular Grumbling

Why do we teach Japanese 1st and 2nd graders about fruit, colors, animals, and numbers? Are these truly the first words that they need to learn in their progression of English education? Should the simplest structures always be presented first? Should we expect students to remember words, or should they be encouraged to use them?

When I was a first-year ALT in Murakami City, I assisted in a model English class conducted at Senami Elementary School, with a teacher named Mrs. Hiki. She was a 1st grade teacher and spoke great English, mostly from her own personal study. She often taught English as part of her class’ general study time and the effects showed. Her students were very attentive and treated English like a special realm within the school day. For the model class, Mrs. Hiki’s goals were: colors, shapes, AND an activity employing the language of colors and shapes. The students practiced these and then participated in a shopping game, where they got to ask for and receive different shapes of a certain color, then glue them onto a larger piece of paper to show their accomplishment.

This class was attended not only by teachers from that school, but a representative from the regional school board, the Kaetsu Board of Education. In the summary discussion of the class afterward, I was rather shocked that his main criticism of the class was that the lesson included too much language, that first and second grade English classes should be sufficient with just teaching the vocabulary words, without any ‘difficult’ communicative language.

I still encounter this attitude sometimes, that students shouldn’t be challenged with “using” language but should just be given the opportunity to “touch” it.  I wonder if this stems from a wish to insulate younger students from the frustrating aspects of language learning, or perhaps from the personal language learning experiences of adult Japanese teachers?