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?

childhood elementary English Saroma

English Swim Lessons 2.0


Last June in Murakami, I had the privilege to do some really fun English lessons in the swimming pool at Senami Elementary.  My supervising teacher at that school, Mrs. Hiki, was really, really, into English and integrating it into her classroom.  A few months ago, up here in Saroma, I gave a presentation about my experiences as an ALT in Niigata Prefecture to the teachers at Hamasaroma Elementary.  They were impressed with many of the special lessons that we had done in class, so I suggested trying to recreate the swimming activity, since it didn’t require as much preparation or special in-class study time as some of the other lessons I presented about.

Last year, Mrs. Hiki and I hurriedly made a bunch of fish shapes on copy paper and laminated them.  Half were totally waterlogged and destroyed after two periods of munchkin-munching.  This time, I tried to come up with a better way of making toy fish that would be much more durable and less wasteful.  So, using 25 boards of A4-sized EVA polyethylene foam, I drew and cut about 100 salmon, whales, octopi, squid, crabs, dolphins, starfish, sharks, turtles and scallops.  Then, using an oil-based marker, I drew faces and outlines on all of the shapes.  After they had dried for a few days, I coated them in waterproofing spray and let them sit for another day.

Alaska elementary English Saroma



Chicken Dance at Wakasa







Alaska elementary English Saroma

Chicken Dance at Wakasa

This article appeared on Page 26 of the Hokkaido Newspaper today, July 18th.

Chicken Dance at Wakasa

Saroma Town:

On the 16th, three students visiting from Saroma’s sister city, Palmer, Alaska, USA, deepened cultural understanding with the children at Wakasa Elementary.

The link between the town and the City of Palmer began in 1980.  Every year, junior and senior high school students undertake reciprocal visits.  Those visiting currently are Rebecca Farley (13), Dena Christiansen (14), and Erin Vincent (14).  From the 14th to the 27th, while experiencing homestays, they will be attending Saroma Junior High School and sightseeing around Hokkaido.

On their visit to Wakasa Elementary, they accompanied the town AET (Assistant English Teacher) Sean Holland (25).  They shared popular American dances such as the “Chicken Dance” with the students, and experienced cultural exchange through mutual self-introductions in English.

Alaska car elementary Saroma

Newsletter Articles

George Carté, head of the Sister City Committee in Palmer and former AET, asked me to write a few short articles on recent events in Saroma for the newsletter that he puts out.  I obliged him, and while I’ve written better, here they are.

Final Classes at Saroma Elementary

In Japan the school year begins in April and ends in March.  Last month the 5th and 6th graders at Saroma Elementary wrapped up the year’s English activities with some fun projects.
The two 5th grade classes spent the last three English classes designing their own countries.


In groups of four, they chose their country name, designed the flag, and thought of the president, currency, economy, geography, food, and laws.  They used English as much as possible.  It was a very open ended activity, so it took some time to get started, but in the end I was very pleased with the range and depth of student creativity.  The imagined countries included Sports Land, Junior Kingdom, and Dog Island (pictured).  I’m looking forward to having these students in 6th grade!
The 6th grade class spent their last two lessons writing and performing English skits.  They used all of the English they’ve learned in elementary school and then some.  The skits were performed in groups of about six students, so each student had only one or two lines, but they spoke with confidence, presenting some very funny material.  Skit situations included a restaurant, convenience store, police station, and mortuary.  Just this week, these students entered Saroma Junior High as 1st graders (7th graders).  I hope I can help continue their enthusiasm for English in the coming school year.


Snowstorm in Saroma

Coming to live in Hokkaido after 20+ years living in Palmer, I did not expect to be surprised by the winters here.  But the weekend of February 21st exceeded my expectations.  I awoke on Saturday morning to three feet of new snow plastered across my front door, and a seven foot high drift wrapping around the back of the house.


My car was similarly covered, although a kind neighbor used his front-end loader to clear me out.  I had planned to drive to Abashiri City that Saturday, but a quick check on the Hokkaido road office website showed a “road closed” X on nearly every major highway in the area.  So I stayed home and shoveled.  In the afternoon, the sun came out.  I braved the remaining wind and piled drifts to take a walk down the river levee toward the butter factory and back through town.  Everyone in town was outside, clearing off cars, driveways and roofs.  Those with snowblowers and loaders were helping out their neighbors, eager to get some use out of their expensive toys.  I’m glad the weather intervened that day.  Walking around Saroma on that sunny, white afternoon I felt the sense of community in this small town.  And I now have nothing to brag about concerning snowy winters.

elementary Saroma


Leaving the elementary school today, I talked to two 3rd grade boys who were playing on a snow pile.  I asked them what they were doing, and one boy said “building a snow slide!”  The other boy pointed to his crotch and said “A snow slide for boys!” and gestured to a small horn shaped mound of snow on the side of the hill.  Then the first boy proceeded to slide down the hill, his crotch slamming into the mound, comically grabbing his privates for dramatic effect.  It made me laugh and made me remember what it was like to just be a kid.  I think adults have to lose that.  It’s sad, but really, what kind of society would any culture have if all of the men were to do shit like that all the time?


America elementary English Japan Middle School Saroma

Yes We Can Make It So.

I’ve been putting off writing for a while, not feeling any inspiration, feeling tired, feeling over or underwhelmed with daily life.  I still have to talk about Remington’s visit, my Okinawa trip, my general life here in Saroma.  I’ll get there.

Yesterday at Wakasa Elementary, I taught 3rd and 4th graders how to say “What’s this?”  I brought a box full of random things from my house to show the students, and asked “What’s this?” for each.  I planned to make each object progressively more difficult and weird, so my mystery box contained an old pool ball from 3719 Mason, a stuffed walrus, a sock, a green monkey glove, a Russian militia hat, and my 8-inch tall figurine of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.  When I pulled the Captain out of the box, one of the five students instantly yelled “YES WE CAN!”  Barack Obama is practically a celebrity here, with this phrase being the hayari kotoba or buzzword of the day.  I have students nearly every day saying it at every opportunity.  I even helped two junior high students write a skit in which they meet President Obama.  It goes something like this:

elementary Japan Middle School Saroma

New Same Job; New Same Life?

I’ve been here in Saroma almost a week now.  I am an Assistant English Teacher for the Saroma Town Board of Education as part of the Sister City relationship with my hometown of Palmer, Alaska.  It’s a pretty sweet deal, and everything is going well enough, but I somehow haven’t found the right adjustment knobs and levers for my brain and emotions, respectively.  The schedule is a lot harder to get used to than I feel it should be.  I have to relearn everything about the house and town.  It’s almost as if I still haven’t allowed myself to mentally reenter this life place.  I really cranked down my Japan thoughts while in America.  Like shut it off.  I think maybe cultural transition is like a coal-fired power plant: it takes a lot of time to start up and is really hard to make similes with.

I have a nice house though.  I’ve been spending a lot of time sleeping in it.


America elementary Japan Murakami





America elementary Japan Murakami

Senami Coast War Memorial

This is my translation of a war memorial that I came across near the Senami coastline in Murakami. The original Japanese is posted on the Japanese version of this site, so feel free to add translation advice, especially concerning the second paragraph, which I don’t completely understand.

On October 3rd 1945, around 10 AM, the shapes of 22 American military landing craft appeared suddenly off this coast, and 700 officers and men from the 11th division of the American Army made landfall at this point.  At that time, military supplies such as railcars, tanks and heavy machinery began to be unloaded, which continued into the end of December that year.  The unloaded supplies were used to construct roads and the schoolgrounds of Senami Elementary, as well as the plaza of the railway station.  During that time, the officers and men stayed at inns (including the old Japan Sea Dojo) and Senami Elementary School.  Afterward, the men moved on with the military supplies toward Niigata.

At that time, to the people of Senami, The American Army were met as a sudden bolt out of the blue.  However, the fact of such a serious matter was that you can’t even see any memorials to the end of the war.  To continually express the wish for eternal peace and to communicate this historical fact for the purpose of future generations, this was posted here.