Wednesday, November 23, 2011

New Path L1 to L2

I have just returned (at least that's how I feel) from National JALT conference 2011, which was held from 19 to 21st. It was such an inspiring and thought-provoking conference. I have attended 5 presentation and 1 Pecha Kucha while helping at Aston table, meeting wonderful grads. All the presentations were amazing and educational especially the one by Dr. Fiona Copland, investigating complexities and contradictions of EFL classrooms. The question was if using L1 is effective in teaching L2. It was the exactly the same and recurring question of mine. I have started using L1 in case of supporting student's better understanding, however, it has more advantages than that, according to Dr. Fiona.

I have read a few articles on this issue and would love to investigate the result in my classroom. I must read more about bilingualism in classrooms and implement the method effectively. Otherwise, mother tongue would dominate the classroom language. which is not my intention.

Since I have found this interesting research point. I would focus on this topic and write relevant discoveries in my classes.

So far, in my 6 graders new class on Monday, using Japanese (mother tongue/MT) lessen the tension of using English and thus Ss can focus more on enjoying to find the similarities between MT and TL(target language). It also satisfies their desire to know all everything said in the class.

The obvious problem is overreliance on MT which might take away the joy of spontaneous discovery of the meaning of new words. However, some report stated that it would be achieved as their understanding increases. From my personal experience in learning English, I also believe in this view and will use "Sandwich Method" in order to decrease the stress of incapability to use the TL and increase understanding. Sandwich method is to use MT in between TL.

This will be interesting to investigate. I believe it would work particularly well in high-schooler's class since they are afraid of being considered as impotent in any fields and they refuse to talk in order to avoid to make mistakes.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wednesday Class

In the morning I had the nursery school class and two classes in the evening.

The first class is always fun and wild with nine 3-year-olds and one 5-year-old. We played with everyone's favorite, One Little Finger song and reviewed numbers, colors with some new animal names. At the end of the lesson I read a funny book about ketchup. They loved to shout "YUK!" when they were asked "Would you like ketchup on your cornflakes?" Bless their innocence!

The second class went well with role playing. Each student got a part and performed while I was recording. They had fun and quite motivated to perform well :-)

In the third class, I had 6 students and did pair practice, asking a few questions each other and report what their partner said to the class. One of the coolest answer to the question, "Do you think we should do things on our own without depending on others?" was "Yes. Because God is busy." This high schooler wants to be a singer song writer. How cool is that!

It seemed everyone enjoyed communicating with their partners; however, one of the students, a high school girl said she didn't like to mingle with others because it was difficult to understand each other. She said she tried to avoid to talk with her school mates as much as possible except some of her good friends.
I would love to ask her more questions to find what she meant but maybe it would be better to do so privately. She is very sensitive girl so that she might have been hurt by misunderstanding or something. Fragility is beautiful but sometimes misses some opportunities to broaden your horizon. Sensitivity and fragility of youth reminds me of the emotional and soft side of myself. I really appreciate for that.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tuesday class

Sometimes a miracle happens for some reasons. It happened in the most challenging class I had yesterday.  I say "challenging" but actually it is relatively easy and fun class. I had three boys -one is a 1st grader who joined the class from this month. The other one is relatively new, 2nd grader who has a bit of trouble to sit still and shut his mouth more than 10 seconds. which can be a trouble in a big class but in my class no problem but adorable. But another one has been a heartache to me because of his apathy. I can handle too much energy but apathy has been killing me. He used to come to my class with a big irresistible smile on his face but as soon as he entered an elementary school this April, he eventually lost interest in learning English. He keeps saying he is busy for doing other things.

The heartbreaking boy didn't show up on time. I was a bit upset about that but it turned out to be good because I could pay attention to those two other boys till he showed up. I knew he forgot (or wanted to forget) to come so that I gave him a call and said, "We are waiting for you!" Others were already deeply engaged in their activities by the time he came and had no issue with me paying full attention to their classmate.

When he rushed into the class, I sensed something a bit positive in him somehow. Did he finally become aware how much I care? Did he have an exceptionally good time at school or after school? Did he have some magical food like chocolate to make him feel less intense and reasonable? Did he finally find how cool learning English can be?
Anyway, we were doing number bingo and I invited him to join us. Unexpectedly, he did gladly and won the game. I thought to myself, "YES! This might be the best time to show him his own capability." but remained as calm as possible not to deprive him of his triumph. Instead, without any break, we did phonics book. This time, he was quite engaged and managed to read the first word. With my spontaneous admiration, he became on fire. I enjoyed witnessing his enthusiasm as well as amazing capability and potential.

The big change to note here were that his school classmate joined this class and two big boys moved to a different class. And perhaps the biggest one was my mind setting. It has been changed in great deal since I started writing this journal.  I consider their circumstances more carefully and realized how lucky I am to share time with those kids including him. Having a brilliant consultant for my school from last month is also a great help for this positive change in myself. There might be more reasons for the positive change in this boy. Whatever the reasons are, I was so thrilled and blissful to feel the positive air in the classroom AGAIN.

Of course, it is too early to conclude that everything will be okay but at least I had a blast with those three boys for the first time in a while. Which will make me gigglish for a while and I know from my experience, such a giggle brings more giggles in others, making a big circle of positive vibe.

At the end of the class, I thanked him dearly for bring the marvelous atmosphere back to the class. He looked happy and proud what he had achieved. And I thought, "This is the reason why I keep on trying to be better not only as a teacher/ researcher but also as a person." It was amazing and humbling to recognize how much power such a little one can have over me.

I am really motivated more than ever and hope it would last a little more than a week.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monday Classes

From this month, I have only two classes on Monday. One is in the morning and the other is in the evening.

The morning class started from 10:30 but as usual, two students were 10 mins late for the class. They were too busy and tired to come to the class on time, I believe. One of them selected the most inappropriate story to read in the Monday morning. It was called "Pork chop" and unexpectedly a story about suicide of an old man. Really gross story to start your new week. But we managed to laugh about that as we shared and discussed what would we react to consideration of others in times of grief. All of us agreed that we would prefer to be left alone for a while because absolutely nothing can heal such a deep grief except time. 

It was obviously too deep and personal subject to talk about. I should have avoided the story but  interestingly it was one of the girls choice. She usually picks pleasant ones but this time she got the darkest one of all. I wonder why she did that. I didn't dare to ask the reason for the story was already heavy enough and I didn't think I could deal with extra heaviness in the class. However, I must ask her the reason later. 

Before reading the story, we shared our up-to-date stories from our journals. One of them has been having a personal problems and she feels very sick nowadays. I thought to myself "Oh, what a gloomy Monday morning." 

At the end of the class, I managed to talk about something uplifting such as enjoyable activities for each of us. One girl said "Shopping" and  the other said, "Theatergoing". The latter one loves Takarazuka, the only women theatrical company. Well, at least, they left the class with smiles on their faces. Phew!

The second class was with three super motivated boys. They are really priceless. One and only challenge was that all of them had difficulties to pick "l" sound such as in cellphone. They tried really hard to catch it and pronounce it. It is really typical obstacles that everyone knows and perhaps every English teacher at school have students practice "l" sound individually in his/her class at least once or twice but I find it unimportant whether they can say it or not at this stage. More importantly, they achieved to make a reasonably understandable sound after a lot of attempts. What a dream team this is!!! I thought to myself "This class is too good to be true."

Tuesday class with three boys is the reality. Sometimes I have to stop and reflect what to do to get full attention from them and keep them interested. Their reaction is instant and direct so that it can be quite severe. In the class, what I planned sometimes doesn't work at all for some reasons and I am sure none of them would tell me what went wrong. They would show me the total boredom.  Which is very very normal and healthy and I even appreciate their honesty and respect their pureness. The tuesday class is like a dance with wolves- wild, unpredictable and thus thrilling. With such a class, I can make my personal as well as professional development. In a very different way, it is motivating and inspiring class for me; however, this Monday class is surely my soul savior for almost everything works or they help me to make it work. It can spoil me badly so that I must be careful. Only my fear is to see any disappointments on their faces. Oh how spoiled I am! 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Monday classes

In the first class, one of students couldn't make it due to a meeting at her uni. Which left two of us, a girl and myself, talking about the same old subject - how to improve English. I thought to myself, "Gosh, how many times have I said the same thing!" This girl has been my student for 10 years, actually more than that. She has got a job right after graduated university but has been thinking to go overseas to get a master's degree. The question is, she says, in what field she wants to study. Which is a huge question I reckon.

We were supposed to read one of the stories in the book we use but we ended up talking about the same question. She asked me a couple of questions regarding the reading but her major interest right now is to get high score in TOEFL. She has a vivid photographic memory which has been her advantage while she was in Japanese educational ladder, however, getting M.A. is a very different ball game. It takes more than memorizing all the information in a textbook. It takes more than getting right answers in multiple choice questions. It takes desition-making, problem-solving, critical-thinking and analyzing skill. If she doesn't have a clear vision on her goal, pursuing it is challenging. Giving up her current job and doing self-searching business alone in overseas sounds a bit too risky for a 24 year-old Japanese woman with a serious sleeping problem.  I am not certain whether I should tell her or not this biting truth. After all, it is her life yet I feel responsible to inform what she should expect.

The second class was the last one, at least, for a while, till they finish the entrance exam for high school. We did a reading practice and an interviwing activity. After that, I shared my favorite quote, "Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. " with my interpretation. In the last class, the question is thrown back at me: Did you do your best?
I am sure there are so many ways that can be more enjoyable, productive and meaningful for those students but my question is whether I have tried enough to facilitate the most enjoyable, productive and meaningful learning environment for them. The answer should be YES yet pathetically it is always YES/NO. Yes, I've done what I thought it would the best. No, I haven't really figured out what exactly works for each of them. I suspect that I can never say YES to the question but it is a good question to keep on asking myself.

The third class has just started a month ago but I had them last friday since they had a football practice this monday. Those new faces motivate me to do better. So far, they are absorbing all the new information brilliantly. My mission for them is to be ready for Jr. high and to cultivate positive attitude towards their ability to learn this new language. So far, so good.

 Overall, I had a very emotional day.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wednesday Classes

I have two classes in the evening. One is with three 6 graders and the other is with 4 high schoolers and 2 university students.

The first class has done Step test level 5 textbooks and lately switched to an intensive reading course book. They read a short easy story and answer comprehension questions along with it. Two of them have good reading skill but one boy is the way behind. The good news is he is still trying quite hard to catch other classmates but from time to time, he loses his patience. He is one of the brightest kids I had and his brothers are brilliant at reading. I have been puzzled why such a smart boy struggle to acquire simple phonics rules so much. He loves reading in his own language and extensively read books. So, it is not about the literacy problem some of other kids have. He doesn't hesitate to interact with others in English. In fact, he usually the one who enjoy communicative activities the most. At school, he is definitely one of the most inquisitive students and his high intellectual level is more than obvious. His motivation gets low from time to time but not significantly low, even a little higher than most of high schoolers. Especially lately, after we started using the course book, he has shown so much interests and really lively in the class. Other two students are quite motivated and get to the point where they would work without anybody's support. They knew their high English proficiency for their age and quite proud of that. In other words, they have become autonomous learners.

This week, I experimented to give some Japanese translation as I read the story for the first time while they listened. I tried to make it less obvious as I make the japanese part as short and brief as possible. This idea is from interlingual communication which I have heard at one of workshops for poets. Quite interesting idea and wanted to see how it works in my classroom. So, since we read a poetic story about a lonely moon, I spontaneously switched English into Japanese and then English again at some words I assume they didn't know. Interestingly, one of the students started taking notes and other two followed. I peeked at their notes. Unexpectedly, those translations I put were written.  They surprised me greatly, which I love, for I often need to ask high schoolers if they don't need to take notes what I said. some students, if not many, are trained to be absolutely passive in a classroom and they don't do anything unless they are told so. Therefore the spontaneous action of them are unexpected and finding learner's autonomy in the class made my day.  Furthermore, the boy did excellently in comprehension questions.
This might be controversial to give some Japanese translations for it would spoil the joy of discovery or guessing skill, however, I wonder if it is rather effective and pleasurable for students if we do so limitedly not throughly word by word translation. I wonder if this interlingual concept can be a middle ground between anti-grammer-translation and deadly tiring grammer-translation. It is too early to say anything but at least I had such a positive reaction from some students.

The second class has quite motivated students. All of them have stayed with me more than 6 years and three of them have nearly 10 years of history with me. I feel fully responsible on their English proficiency and I am not satisfied with my teaching skill. They are great kids but I don't see learner's autonomy in them yet. They are rather passive in spite of their friendliness and well-mannered behavior in the class. We are emotionally bonded for sure due to the long history we shared, however, my ultimate goal is to cultivate their intellectual curiosity and I haven't fulfilled the mission yet I am afraid. Two girls in the class have mentioned they would love to go abroad and expand their horizon in the future but other 4 students have no intention to get out of their cozy small world. After all, it is not entirely my responsibility how they live but it is a shame if they can't see their full potential. And I believe it is my fault if lack of confidence in their English abilities is the reason for their apathy toward overseas.
In order to stimulate their adventurous spirits, I started using stories written by other EFL teenage students, hoping one day they would get out of here to see the world for I believe we perceive who we really are only in comparison and I also believe we want to know who we are as much as possible.

This week, I asked them why they study English. What motivate them to do so. I got only one expected answer. Which is "To get into an university." Other answers were quite surprising and exciting as follows:
To live in Spain in the future
To study in Canada in the future
To visit Australia in the future
To be able to write original English songs
To be able to read all the papers regarding the world history

I hope each of them find a way to achieve their goals and wish I could be a bit of support for them.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday class

I have only one class on Tuesday at the moment with 4 boys aged 7 to 10. Three of them are fairly new faces. I do TPR a lot to outlet their incredible energy in the class. I can't expect them to sit still and listen to unknown sounds for 50 mins. They love to get out of the classroom and do something in the garden. It is very fortunate that our little school has its garden, big enough to play Mr. Wolf or other fun games.
We spend more time in the outdoor classroom when the weather is mild. It seems to me it is more productive for no need to ask them to sit still or settle down repeatedly. They can be as wild as they want to be. In fact, I find it quite disappointing because they are not really wild. I was much wilder kid.

Yesterday, we had a guest who was 7 year old boy. 5 boys in a classroom can be  quite messy especially with a mum observing the class sitting next to the new face. One of them who is also 7 went really wild. For some reasons, he needed to show how rebellious he could be with big boys and the leader of the class, me. He acted so badly and tried to spoil all the fun of all the games we tried to play. It was awesome effort to get me really angry at one point when he started laughing at the visitor's pronunciation. It worked so well that I gave him the most frighteningly disgusted look. He couldn't help to say "Scary..." It was too adorable to be mad at even for a few more seconds.
Other boys must have felt sorry for me because of this insanely behaving classmate and were so helpful with the class and the visitor, encouraging and even praising his effort to do something. After a couple of activities for phonics with the severe peer pressure, the little rebellious one stopped being unreasonable. The visitor seemed to have fun with other big boys and for my big reward, he gave me the cutest and sweetest smile as he left. He would join us for the Halloween trick-or-treating this Saturday.

Overall, it wasn't really the best class I had but quite interesting one to observe. I must admit I tried to show the best class I could possibly manage to the visitor and his mum. Which must have smelled fishy or at least awkward to the little cute monster and his terrible behavior is just a reflection of his uneasiness, concern or disappointment. Or can be the test many children often give us to see how reasonable we, teachers/ parents/ grown-ups, are. Having a visitor is a big test for me for I am apt to get to know the person instantly and convince him that I am on his/her side within a class. Which is quite silly and arrogant notion of me. I wish I could have another chance to show who I am and let him decide whether he likes me or not. Also I must gain the mutual trust with the rebellious boy again. Big ego often gets in a way. It is my dilemma how strong I should show certain leadership for without a captain, all the ship might be lost or crushed. I'd love to be the lighthouse, warm and stable, to guide the ship gently and surely to the destination but I am too noisy and clumsy for that.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Monday Classes

I have three classes on Monday. The first one is from 10:30 am. It is not so dauntingly early for me but for my students ,who are in their early 20's, it seems it is. They almost always miss the first 10 mins. Which is really understandable considering their daily life styles, however, the society we live in is not so understanding I am afraid.

We read a book True Tales of American Life together. It has nearly 100 true stories, written by everyday people, not one of those HOT writers. We can relate to each story easily for it is short, easy and friendly, dealing with something familiar to us. Nothing academic but very enjoyable. Some issues emerged from our readings are quite serious yet very relevant to our lives. Each week, one of my students pick a story from the book and we discuss our questions and opinions about it.

This week, we shared a story called "The Interpretation of Dreams". Which was scarily appropriate that I just had a vivid nightmare this morning. I got up because of the scream of myself. At a breakfast table, I asked my daughter if I often scream or talk while I am asleep. According to her, I OFTEN scream...

Anyway, we then talked about the dream we had last night or recently and checked the meaning with the dream dictionary.
We shared quite interesting findings under "Lizard" and "Scream". I doubt the reliability of this site and its information but it makes fun readings.

In the second class, we study Step test pre-second level, using one of those textbooks. To make it a bit bearable, I use the last 10 mins for an activity, having students interview each other with some questions I found online. I usually  encourage them to add some of their own questions. The fun part is to set a timer for 3 mins. and do some intense interviewing ( some may say interrogating) . I named it "Time Shock" which is stolen from one of the quiz shows I used to love as a kid. In the show, if the participants of the show failed to answer all the questions, the seat, which is set  high up on the top of a few meters long pole would fall down as it spins like one of those scary ride at an amusement park. Unfortunately I don't have the seat and must do that manually. It is a hard work but worth the effort for it generates such a great laughter. Please note that you don't do this all the time for it may spoil that excitement.
For the reading comprehension part of the test, I introduced scanning and have students do the reading within certain amount of time, depending on the mood of the class. This also can be a fun Truth-or-false game.

The last class is the most exciting one at the moment because it is new one and all the students are amazingly motivated. Their eyes twinkle  like those of 3 year olds. I have three 6graders, all football loving boys. Those pre-teen kids usually are quite shy to make mistakes but they are not shy at all. I usually ask my students not to speak any japanese at all but for those boys I don't stop them to interact each other in japanese. But I keep on speaking only English to see what happens. Interestingly, in the third lesson, all of them have started to guess what I say and even try to answer my questions in English.
On the first day of their class, one of their mum came and said he might have to drop out after a few classes for he showed no interests in English.  More interestingly, he has become one of the most motivated one of all.

In the class, I did TPR and phonics as well as a spontaneous activity. The last one worked so well and we had a blast. The activity is just to draw a picture as I instruct them using the new voc. such as face, eyes, nose, ears and etc. They drew a face on a piece of paper and all the pics were so good with some personalities so that I couldn't help asking them a bit of stories behind. I asked the name, age and their preference on food and sport. Unexpectedly they created the character very well. I didn't plan to do so but it turned out to be one of the most fun activities we shared.
I look forward to seeing how they progress!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Thursday classes

I have two classes on Thursday. One is Elementary school kids class and the other is Jr. High class.

Elementary kids class: I have only a boy and a girl in this class. 
The girl is 8 years old and has been studying English since she was 3. She can speak, read and write quite well and her comprehension is excellent. 
The boy is a year older than she is but he started learning English a few years ago with me. He is one of those kids with no enthusiasm. He was sent to my class by his mum, feeling hopeless in learning this new language. His 5 year older sister used to come to my class and she was one of the best not only in the class but also in her private Jr high school. She is blessed with brilliantly efficient brain, at least in Japanese education system where memorization is one of the core skills.  I suspect his apathy towards everything might be something to do with her excellency in the academic filed as well as sports. 
In contrast, this girl is fully motivated and seems to believe that she can acquire English. The difference in their ability is getting greater and greater for he doesn't do any works unless his mum pushes him enough but the girl enjoys her progress and doesn't forget to do homework. They both have busy working parents. 
I introduced them phonics and ER. It is amazing to see how much she can learn from those graded readers. But for him, reading is nothing but torture since he hates it. He is good at handwriting and his memory is amazingly vivid. All he needs is a bit of focus. He shows amazing enthusiasm and focus when he plays learning activities. 
I have just started to use a textbook designed for intensive reading for them. The book is a bit to easy for her but very challenging for him yet they both can read the easy and short articles and answer some comprehension questions with my instruction. This class is quite teacher-centered and I am not happy about that. But my goal at this stage is to get him understand the basic rules of reading and to offer him a chance to find something interesting in learning English. The latter is not so easy but I have been trying to find the breakthrough moment with him. 
I think having a fairly good reading skill will help kids when they enter Jr. High. In spite of some serious errors in English Education in Japan ( The most well-known one is very odd translation), having positive view on their English proficiency from the beginning has very positive results in most cases. This is also based on my personal experience. I always love English even as a subject at school because my embarkment to English education was so smooth and enjoyable because of the positive prospective I had towards my ability in learning English. The best explanation of this is my mum was an English teacher and she listened FEN (Currently it is called AFN) and the records of all kinds of jazz and soundtracks everyday. She never taught me English but I had sufficient English shower to feel comfortable with the sound of the language as I entered Jr. High. Plus I have already had a motivation to learn it, that was, to understand the meaning of all the lyrics I could sing. 
Anyhow, each person has a different way of learning. I must find a way for the boy.

Jr. High class: This is a dream class with all the enthusiastic students. They are quite top level at their school as far as English is concerned and they are quite proud of that. I don't really need to work on their motivation. I still want them to see English not as a mere subject but also a way to communicate with others using it as a common language. But having an entrance exam and all the pressure they feel, I really understand why they want to focus on tests such as Eiken. I often talk about the joy of leaning this global language, hoping one day they will realize what I mean. Perhaps this class is goal-oriented rather than process-oriented yet I can't complain so much since those students do their best in the class. The dilemma between ideal and reality can't be avoided I suppose. Nevertheless, there is always a way to have fun under any circumstances. For us is 8 to 10 mins game time at the end of the class. We do all kinds of quiz ( most cases about the content we have learned in the class) in game show style and enjoy short but fun time together. The laughter I get is priceless. 
This week, we run out of time because of the amount of worksheets to do and couldn't get the laughter. I must come up with better time-management strategy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Teaching Journal for TEYL Oct. 20th

Finally, I did it. I am on the Master's course I have dreamed of ever since I started undergrad degree.
So far I read an introduction book about AR and some papers on the same master's course. Recording teaching journal is recommended in both readings so I will give it a try.

Yesterday I had three classes, Nursery class, 6th graders and teenagers. Great variation to deal with.
Kids class: 11 kids, aged 3 to 5. We had a Halloween party, trick-or-treating around the school, getting sweets. After that, we played some games and read a story about Halloween. Most of kids looked pleased and excited for their first Halloween experience except a few hypersensitive ones for changes. They cried their head off when dressed kids in Halloween costume marched in their class. It was predictable and manageable incident. What bothered me is the behavior of a 5 year-old boy, who usually plays the role of a leader in the class, acted very shy and looked puzzled. It wasn't fear. It was something else.

6th graders class: We have started read intensively, using a textbook for developing mainly reading skill.
The textbook is visually attractive with friendly illustrations and short stories. Each unit has comprehension questions to confirm how much students understand the story. I hope they enjoy the improvement they make in reading skill with the book.
The problem in this class is a boy who has been struggling to grasp some simple rules of phonics. He is good at answering comprehension questions if I read the whole texts for him. He shows progress but it is the way slower than the other two in the same class. How I can operate the class without making him lose confident is my big challenge.

Teenagers class: Students have been motivated to a certain degree and do what they are assigned for. The challenge they face is to be more active in their learning. They do what they asked for but nothing more. I hope I can inspire much more autonomy in the class.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Day 10

After a thought-provoking weekend, I finally put my thoughts down on paper, my blog in the Net realm.

I've never been either extremely lucky or well-off in terms of material wealth but I have been quite blessed in terms of family, friends and work. I've loved and been loved by those around me and have built a safe and peaceful small- town realm. On top of that, some incredibly inspiring and dynamic new faces came into my life at the beginning of this year. Ever since I got to know them, my days have become a mind-blowing roller-coaster ride. I feel urged to share some of this luck. 

Having read a newspaper article about two little boys who lost their mum in the tsunami, this urge has become overpowering.  However, my little hands can't do much except for taking hold of other hands to make a big circle of helping hands. I have come to the conclusion that only by joining such a circle of good-willed people, might I be able to do something valuable, and so I have started searching for a suitable group for me to join. I had an "aha!" moment when I found out about a series of charity Yoga events. Since I'm a regular practitioner of Yoga and a firm believer in its philosophy, it has made perfect sense to me to contribute my time and energy, and make a bit of a donation for such events.

Following my instincts has brought me some serious troubles yet no regrets. It is always the best to follow where my heart leads and it surely took to me the right place at the right time. I've met some amazingly considerate and generous people through those events, and getting to know them multiplies the joy of living. It is just awesome to see the energy that the organizers of these events put in to transforming a painfully traumatic event into something of such power. I have felt so welcomed and so honored to take a part in their events.

Such incredible experiences have given me a much clearer vision of what I want to be. Would it be too crazy If I said bringing Yogic philosophy into Japanese early childhood education is my mission?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Day 9

Had one of the best, sweetest golden weeks. Now I've got to get rid of this festive feeling and get serious about studying. My strategy is "quantity over quality", in other words,  just do it.

Going though some of IELTS practice tests, I've realized I definitely need to work on my sluggish reading speed as well as writing. In order to achieve this short term goal, I will try some speed reading exercise, at least, 10 minutes a day for a few months and see what happens. My current reading speed is about 200 words per min. and my goal is to get 500 wpm. I have a lot to work but not it is not such a unrealistic goal I reckon. Or am I too optimistic?

One of my dear friends/ tutors suggested that I should get a daily newspaper, set the timer, read and write the summary of the article. My current dilemma has been how I can fulfill both physical as well as psychological health.  Since I'm overly health-conscious and actually have incredible amount of energy to release in order to maintain my sanity, I desperately need to come up with a daily physical exercise routine, something time-effective and sustainable one. My solution for that is to combine this reading practice with walking exercise. It doesn't mean I read while I walk. That would be too radical for my one-truck mind to deal with. What I would do from today is to walk to the station to get a newspaper, which would take about 30 minutes, read the front page and write the summary of it.

I will, I will rock and roll :-)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Day 8

Back in my high school days, most of my classmates got really excited about the idea of having a driver’s license. Some of them started going to a driving school as soon as they became eligible, at the age of 18. One classmate, the first one who turned 18 in my class, basked in tremendous respect from all of her classmates except me. I was not into cars but into fashion. My idea of being cool was to look different from others in the most stylish and hip way possible. I idiotically spent most of my tiny allowance on fashion magazines, and dreamed of being one of the world's leading fashion designers, like Yoji Yamamoto or Rei Kawakubo. Passing my driver’s license was not on my list of creative and innovative priorities, especially when I discovered I wasn’t going to be the first. Being as arrogant and ignorant as hell, young Chico believed she was the one who sets the trend for the whole school.  This ridiculous notion, however, was shattered as soon as I enrolled at a technical college, where many of world-class top designers studied, in the heart of Tokyo. I realized I was just a tiny tadpole in a huge pond. The reality made me feel humbled and relaxed, and encouraged me to make the best of my little world.

It was just after I graduated to the status of single mum,that getting a driver’s license and my own car really caught my attention. My daughter was a relatively healthy child yet visits to the hospital became an almost weekly routine. The fragile body of a baby requires regular visits to the hospital and sometimes emergency visits in the middle of the nights. Although I have the most supportive family, I had to deal with my baby’s physical condition on my own most of the time and I decided that a car would be the most convenient tool to have.
So, as soon as she started attending a public nursery school, I started attending a driver’s school and got myself a license within a couple of months, without failing any tests at all. Considering my clumsy and totally wild driving technique, my impulsive personality and my pathological reactions towards the absolutely disgusting attitudes of my instructors, getting this official authority for driving was a minor miracle.

This little miracle story leads me to discuss this question:
Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of having a car.

In our modern life style, especially in urban areas, having a car is not a high priority anymore for we have public transport such as trains and buses. However, there are certain circumstances where having a car can make life a lot easier. Therefore, it seems crucial to concideri both the advantages and disadvantages before buying a car.

The main advantage of having car is the freedom it gives to travel anywhere at any time. In the case of a single mother like myself, having a car saved me a lot of time and extra stress for it enabled me to take my daughter to the hospital without having to wait for an ambulance. Under certain circumstances, such as emergency calls from school after a serious accident, a car is the fastest and easiest means of transport.

Moreover, a car can provide a comfortable and private space on the way to your destination. It is a mobile living room as well as a temporary accommodation, with its own air-conditioning, radio and CD players. One can dine, put on make-up, dress, take a rest or even stay overnight in an emergency. Receiving up-to-date news from a car radio can prove handy in a crisis as well.

On the other hand, the air pollution caused by automobile emissions has become a serious concern. Not only environmentally, but also physically as well as psychologically, using public transport, bicycles or even our own feet are much healthier than driving a car if only because they avoid all the stress of traffic jams. During the rush hours, the imposed intimacy of a traveling in crowded train seems less stressful than the anxiety of being stuck in traffic. These alternate forms of transport are also much easier on the family budget, since there are no taxes directly associated with them. In Japan, the official inspection fee for cars is quite steep and maintenance costs can be a considerable burden to our lives.

In conclusion, owning a car can lead to an easier life, especially at critical times, but choosing alternatives, such as public transport, bicycles or walking is wiser in the long term since these alternatives lead to a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Day 7

I’ve just had a peaceful and lovely weekend outside of Tokyo, leaving behind all the noise in my poor head. The town was deadly quiet. Even at the heart of the city, all stores are closed by 8ish except some bars and karaoke joints. No seductive excitement in evidence anywhere. It seems even young stars stay home, except the wildest ones, and do whatever they feel like. I’m quite sure their interests are not so different from that of teenagers in Tokyo, though. Like everywhere else, their ultimate goal is to be the definitive local color of cool.
One of my friends is from Ehime prefecture, one of four prefectures, located on the smallest and least populated island in Japan. I was astonished to discover the sub-cultural differences when we talked about our “young and stupid” teenage era. I had always thought of myself as one of the wildest and stupidest of all in one of the most conservative private girls' schools in Japan. After exchanging our reminiscences of our high school days, I realized I had actually been a relatively decent girl. Most of his stories were about quite life-threatening situations. At the age of 12, he was addicted to smoking and heavy drinking with his gang. I was totally shocked to learn this,  as the thought of smoking, taking other drugs or drinking had never occurred to me at the stage of my life. The adrenaline  that I had rushing though my system was thrilling enough to deal with, I suppose. It was only much later, in my high-teen era, that I was tempted to smoke just to attain the cool image of being a female smoker. Intrigued, I asked him the reason for his addiction. He said, “ Trying to be cool is one thing and bored is another.” Another friend from Prince Edward Island, in Canada, which lacks the crazy excitements of city life but where alluring nature still remains, also made a similar comment once.
Those experiences led me to this question today:
In a recent survey conducted in this country, it was found that up to 20% of twelve year-olds in some schools were showing early signs of nicotine addiction.
In the eighteen to twenty year age bracket the percentage was as high as 70%. A large contributing factor to this high level of addiction is attributed to the uncensored TV advertising of cigarettes.
For this reason all cigarette advertising should be banned.
People tend to seek a reason for an issue. The main reason for this attempt is for our own peace of minds, I believe. Having a clear reason makes you feel better, or at least less confused. Perhaps having no concrete reason is disconcerting. Parents and teachers ask badly-behaved teens the reason for their rebellious and self-destructive attitudes. However, even if the teenagers understood the forces that drive them, would that knowledge help them to control their lives any better? Nobody feels secure and blissful in a chaotic environment. Simply because they have no idea what is going on inside their heads and bodies, they feel confused and distressed. The uncontrollable aspects of life are intimidating and fearful for their pre-mature hearts. 
I personally have experienced this mysterious magnetic force of rebelliousness, with an overwhelming fear for the uncertainty of the future. Since I had been a rather quiet and obedient little girl in my childhood, my dismayed parents asked me the reason for my excessively unfriendly attitude. If I had known the answer back then, I would have made this list for them:
1 Rapid and radical mental and physical change
2 Peer-pressure for being cool
3 Stress for being excellent academically 
4 Excessive energy as well as irritation
5 Insecurity for the unknown future
6 Loss of childhood innocence
7 Discovery of the absurdity of the world 
Considering all the aspects listed above, it would be strange or even worrisome if teenagers all handled their adolescence in an obedient manner. Those who don’t become rebellious are likely to be either exceptionally mature-minded or apathetic to life. The latter is the more likely the reason and apathy is more problematic than disobedience. In other words, rebelliousness in teenagers should be considered a healthy symptom of personal development. All of us go through the stage in order to mature our minds and souls. Without the inner chaos, full of philosophical questions, dealing with absurdity of life in adulthood would be unbearable. 
The excessive amount of information we receive from multi-media might  be an additional source of confusion for the pre-mature minds of teens. It can also, however, stimulate their rational minds, providing an opportunity to view the world critically, given the appropriate guidance. Banning cigarette advertisements will lead to total control of their minds. It is the same censorship mentality as banning books. In an overprotected environment, freedom of thought will be banned as well. No individual thinker can be nurtured under such control. 
In conclusion, far from banning cigarette advertisements, we could use them as opportunities for open discussion and research on social issues such as teenage addictions.  

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Day 6

Just a year before the new millennium started, my daughter, Momo, launched into the world. She was one of the miracles that has happened to me because I was told that I had a small chance of having a baby when I had a major operation for the second time at the age of 21. The news made me a little disappointed since I love little ones but my easy-going nature didn’t take it seriously.

Perhaps happy-go-lucky is the best policy. After only two years of marriage, I was blessed with an unexpected gift. Although it took me 24 long and extremely painful hours to give birth to her, the blissfulness of having a new life enabled me to get through. The moment I held her in my arms, I was filled with “love and lights”, to use the new age term. I am not an exceptionally spiritual person but I can’t find any word but “spiritual” to describe the moment. It converted me into a steadfast believer of “Every life is precious.”

Except for some of women who suffer from critical mental problems, new parents usually expect from their children nothing but happiness at their birth. The chores of feeding every two hours, changing diapers, daily outing, bathing, nurturing and sacrificing are a tiny price to pay for the unconditional love they feel. The most beautiful and adorable face of their baby is the reward for their hard work. In my daughter’s babyhood, I wished for nothing but her health and happiness. 

In spite of the unconditional love I still feel inside towards my daughter, things have become trickier and more complicated as my expectations  for her grow. I wonder: 'Exactly when did I start expecting “the best” for her without knowing what exactly “the best” for her should be?'. Who really knows what is the best for themsellf ? I don’t even really know what is best for me. Only I know is what I want to do or what I think it is the best for me. Then how come I, as a mum, started acting like I “know” the best life for my daughter. It is really bizarre tendency of parents that majority of us think “My child can do better.” I often felt it and even uttered that as if I knew what was really “better”.
Going back to a Japanese university, however, gave me a little more critical objectivity towards my behavior as a mum.

Having said that, the most appropriate writing task for today is:
In some countries young people have little leisure time and are under a lot of pressure to work hard in their studies.What do you think are the causes of this?What solutions can you suggest?

In 1995, I was studying Early Childhood Education at Seattle Central Community College.  This gave me the chance to compare my own  Japanese culture with U.S culture, both through my own first-hand impressions and through stories I heard. In my country, and particularly in Tokyo where I grew up and currently live, the pressure on children to work hard in their studies is incredibly high, compared to children in Seattle. Several reasons can be listed: the lack of rich natural resources, the prevailing philosophy, the educational system and the decreasing number of children.

Manpower is the one of major resources in Japan due to the lack of sufficient natural resources. We must rely on other countries for essentials, such as food and petrol for maintaining the current level of civilization. This encourages us to believe in hard-work in general. The majority of Japanese are apt to consider industriousness as one of our virtues and take pride in our reputation as hard workers. Consequently, children are expected to do their job as hard as possible. Sending their children to prestigious schools has become a major concern for parents. Entrance exam add higher pressure and more severer competition to the Japanese education system.

Ironically, the decreasing number of children spurs the competition to get into prestigious schools. Having fewer children per household enables parents to invest more money and time in each child. The more they invest, the higher their expectations become. This vicious circle is the cause of the high pressure on children.

Generally, doing the best you can is a good policy. No one would deny this. However, it is said that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Having taught children aged from 3 to 18 for more than a decade, I have noticed that the majority of children suffer from the loss of their intellectual curiosity due to the overbearing pressure to get high scores in tests.

The total loss of intellectual curiosity of children will create the apathy for  the rest of their lives. Without vitality, children will be uncreative and dull, showing no interests in any subjects. They risk becoming obedient yet blind followers of orders, taking no responsibilities for their own lives. Without innovative minds, how can a nation like Japan, that relies on human resources, survive? The danger is that this nation become nothing more than the puppet of more aggressive and powerful nations. The focus of education should be reconsidered and reformed radically. It should be shifted from insisting on high scores in tests to inspiring intellectual curiosity. Educators and educational facilities must revolutionize the current misconceptions that education should merely focus on test-taking. Otherwise, the majority of parents and educators will succeed only in raising a generation of dull Jacks with a total apathy for life.


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Day 5

Spring is the most emotional season of the year since it's when the new school year starts and I need to deal with some changes in my classes. Welcoming new faces is always exciting but saying good-bye to old faces is just painful. It has been nearly two decades since I started this profession, however, I have never got used to saying good-bye to anyone. Having my daughter’s birthday as well as memorial days for my grandparents also adds much stronger sentiments to the season. This gloomy emotion has been an excuse for my lack of motivation for the IELTS challenge lately.

This morning, after most of my best friends had gone back to their jobs, I wandered around the online world with no motivation to do any work. Luckily, I got the chance to have a nice chat with one of my friends, whom I highly respect, on one of my favorite social utilities, Facebook. I may have a dull mind but I am blessed with a sharp instinct and it told me to go ahead and grab this opportunity. After exchanging the routine morning greetings, I asked how his study of Japanese is going. He said he’s been learning 20 new Chinese characters a day. This is quite a high goal to achieve for a busy and fancy university English teacher like him. So, I asked him what his secret for motivating himself is. His advice was: “Stop trying but just do it.”

So, here I am following these words of wisdom with reasonable motivation.

Today’s writing task is:
As mass communication and transport continue to grow, societies are becoming more and more alike, leading to a phenomenon known as globalization. Some people fear that globalization will inevitably lead to the total loss of cultural identity.
To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?

The total loss of our cultural identity has been one of the major concerns in my country. Since we have long been a mono-cultural society, paying more honor to our cultural traits than is due, this is understandable. However, true understanding of one's cultural identity cannot be reached without acknowledging the cultural identity of others.

Concrete concepts, such as “solid” and “liquid”, are easy to understand because they are both visible and tangible. How about abstract and subjective concepts such as “good”? Don’t we perceive the concept only in comparison with “bad”? How about “small”? How could we perceive the concept without comparing it to something “big”? Consciously or unconsciously, we grasp ideas of what things are in relative terms. Even the most subjective and abstract concepts, such as love, only become obvious when you lose them. The absence of love or the presence of its opposite emotion, hate, tells you what love is. Without having something else to compare things to, we don’t fully understand anything.

Cultural identity is one of the most abstract concepts. In order to capture such a concept, we must have something to compare it with. For example, group-mindedness is one of the main features of our cultural identity in Japan. We value team work more than individual achievements. Consequently, decision-making takes more time than is necessary. This collective inefficiency is something that I have had to deal with repeatedly in my country. However, it was only after having stayed in the U.S.A. for over a year and having learned its respect for individuality, that I became aware of this cultural characteristic.

Globalization might bring confusion to this mono-cultural country as the result of a lack of understanding for different values. At the same time, it can also introduce a whole range of new values. Acknowledging the cultural identities of others will not only expand our views but also enable us to understand our own culture better in comparison. Thanks to such self-cultural-recognition, solid cultural identity can be recognized.

Therefore, by welcoming globalization rather than rejecting it, we will be able to find opportunities to redefine our own cultural identities.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Day 4

“If you were given the chance, what are the changes you would implement in this 21st century to make our world a better place to live? Discuss a few changes in not less than 250 words.”
The question above is one of writing tasks in IELTS. Since I declared that I’m fully motivated in the previous posts, I’d better stop looking for even more motivation and begin the real practice. Otherwise, I’ll be the most pathetic case: fully motivated and failed. There is no salvation for that.  
My tiny mind craves for big issues "like a pig loves shit”. Please excuse my untameable, anti-Victorian tongue and forgive me for I’ve been waiting for a good opportunity to use this expression of Julie Powell's. In her book "Julie and Julia", she wrote: “I love my husband like a pig loves shit.” I was reading the book on the train and had an awfully tough time not to laugh out loud - so tough I had to pinch myself.
It turned out to be a most embarrassing experience in public: some mysterious gooey liquid came out of all the holes in my face. I’ve been distinctly more cautious of the contents of my reading on public transport ever since.
What's that you are muttering under your breath? “Get your bloody point across, mate!”? I’ve heard you. Don’t you know that “Patience is a virtue”? In Othello, Shakespeare, the genius of geniuses, says: “How poor are they that have not patience!” I’d better stop kidding around and get to work before all of you start suspecting that I’m a total loser.
Ok. Here we go.
The change I’d like to implement for the next generation is a change in our mindset concerning all conventional beliefs. What is good or bad, conventional and unconventional, moral and immoral and so on, for it may differ from society to society. It would be better if we acknowledged the differences first and then worked together, hand in hand, to rebuild a new mindset or sets of beliefs based on common ground. Otherwise, international relations everywhere may suffer.
For instance, in my country, the group-oriented mind is extolled as the way to make harmonious society whereas the U.S.A. emphasizes individuality more. There is no perfect ideology. Japan has succeeded  in making one of the safest countries in the world, but the cost has been the loss of the critical and individual mind in order to over-promote a group-oriented attitude. We are taught to be cooperative and humble as soon as we enter nursery school. Order and harmony are more important than creativity and unique individuality. These complementary values must be integrated somehow. All of us can find an unique harmony in society if each individual is respected because of his or her uniqueness.
Although it may look impossible or seem like a long way to go yet, we won’t be able to survive without such a radical mind revolution. I don’t think I’m paranoid or exaggerating the risk of extinction of the human race, considering the environmental problems we face today. In fact, it is always our minds that have provoked the necessary changes; it is not at all unrealistic to consider the need for a radical change in mindset. 
Perhaps walking backwards or going upside down from time to time is not such a ridiculous way to behave in order to break the mould