Monday, May 31, 2010

Kobe zoo and harbor cruise

Wow, what a weekend! But first I want to share a picture back from Himeji. I just found it! It`s of cities built up on hills out of the surrounding evergreen forest. This is what I call “the floating city islands of Himeji.” They look like of sci-fi-ish.

Here`s riding up the gondola:

Saturday I went to Kobe with my friend Kayoko. (You might have noticed I like zoos!) I really enjoy seeing different kinds of animals; even the same animals in different environments can act very differently, and this time was no exception! Even though my hometown zoo has African penguins, these penguins seemed much more “group oriented.” How Japanese of them! They often moved in unison, almost like a synchronized dance. It was really funny to see!

And even though I had seen panda at the Beijing zoo, these Panda didn`t have any glass separating them from the viewers and they had a funny way of sitting in big tires. It was so cute!

And I think this was my first time to see koala. It`s kind of rare to see them not in a tree, so here`s two pictures of them posing on the ground:

One of my very favorite animals is the Asian river otter. They`re so playful and mischievous! These fellows were funny because whenever they got out of the water, they dried themselves off on the burlap sacks lying around, then dived back in, then got out and dried themselves off again! Here`s a video of them drying themselves and chasing each other:

And of course, the baby orangutan! I`ve never seen a baby one before:

Here`s a snow leopard. When we got there, the two of them were fight-playing, jumping on top of each other from the rocks. That was fun to see.

I think the highlight of this particular zoo was an animal I had never even heard of before. Check this guy out, he`s a binturong or bearcat from Southeast Asia:

Doesn`t he look just plain evil? Like something from The Princess Bride or some other fairytale. I think it`s the black eyes. Admittedly, this is a picture from Wikipedia. The bars in front of their cage didn`t allow me to get a good one.

After the zoo, we went to Kobe Harborland. We grabbed some dinner at a cheap restaurant but unfortunately Kayoko started feeling sick and me too a little bit, so we took an hour or two to rest. We had to miss the free concert, but fortunately we were feeling good enough to take the evening cruise around the harbor, which was the whole reason we went. It was quite lovely on the top deck though a little chilly. Here`s Kayoko and me on the ship:

Here`s a picture of the big Kobe ferris wheel:

And here`s the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world. You can`t see it very well from here: I was hoping we`d get closer but I guess there`s a lot of sea traffic there so this is as close as we got.

Anyway, it was a very pleasant day, so if you find yourself in Kobe, the zoo and the Concerto cruise are two really fun things to do! A slight warning, though. If you plan on getting lunch or dinner on the boat, it`s VERY expensive, no less than $50. It`s some of the best Cantonese (Southern Chinese) food in Japan though, and a buffet, so if it`s worth it to you, go for it. In my opinion, however, who wants to waste time on an hour and a half cruise eating? There are plenty of cheap restaurants in the area. But plan to take more than just a light sweater, because if you just buy the cruise ticket without a meal, you`re limited to the outside of the ship and the chilly lobby. If you get seasick easily (like me), it`s best to stay on the upper deck with the wind blowing in your face.

I must confess, however, I probably stayed out too late. I got a soar throat about halfway through Saturday and by Sunday morning it had turned into a full-blown cold, so I had to stay home from church. Monday I had to go to work regardless of the fact that I felt like I was going to faint and teach two classes. Oh, well, something happens when I have to teach. No matter how bad I feel, unless the kids are really bad and push me beyond tolerance, I can always “turn on the genki” for class. Genki means healthy and energetic.

So what`s an example of being pushed beyond tolerance? Last Wednesday I was teaching ESS club and we were playing a game, reviewing the parts of the body. We got to the word “teeth.” All the students said “teese.” So we all laughed and I asked them to repeat after me. No one did. No matter how many times I asked them to repeat, in English and in Japanese, they refused to make the TH sound. I actually grabbed my tongue and pulled it between my teeth and asked them in Japanese to do as I did. Nobody would. Now in Chinese culture I can understand. The tongue between the teeth can have bad connotations, but in Japanese there is no such meaning. I tried to encourage them in every way I knew how, telling them not to be shy and that it`s OK to make mistakes, but they just kept giggling and telling me in Japanese that they wouldn`t do it. So I moved on to other things and they still refused to repeat after me. In fact, they simply refused to speak English at all, and answered all my questions in Japanese, even when I gave them the English answer, spelling it out for them on the board. I got so frustrated that I gave them the “how on Earth to you expect to learn English if you refuse to speak it?” lecture. They just smiled at me. I wonder if they even understood that I was upset with them. One of the girls translated what I said very accurately, but the other kids just kept smiling at me and even laughed, as if it were funny. Honestly, I was probably a little too angry and that`s what they found funny. I really hated it when teachers talked that way to me, so I probably should have just smiled back at them and given up. If a student simply refuses to participate, it`s not my fault if they fail. That`s the Japanese way, and the other teachers keep telling me, “when in Japan, do as the Japanese do.”

Part of the problem has always been that the kids don`t really see me as a teacher. Some, though not all, call me “Laura chan” meaning “cute Laura” instead of “Laura sensei.” When I`m alone with the kids, they simply refuse to listen to me, even when I speak Japanese. It`s like I`m not a real teacher, so they don`t have to do what I say. And in their regular English classes, they don`t have to speak English, so they don`t see why they should have to speak English in mine, even simple things like “please” and “thank you.”

What I find interesting is that 50 years ago, Japan started hiring native English speakers by droves to help improve their country`s English. In the last fifty years, has there been any improvement in the country`s overall English ability? Nope. The only people who speak English are the English teachers (and even some of them can`t) and those who have studied or worked abroad in an English-speaking country. I think there are several reasons for this:

1.) English education in Japan begins too late, in 7th grade when the students are 12 or 13. Studies show that in order for a child to really master a language like a native speaker, they must start no later than age 10. That is when the language acquisition part of the brain starts to close. In order to master a language without any trace of an accident, acquisition must begin no later than 5. So preferably the target language is begun in preschool or kindergarten.

2.) English speaking instruction does not occur on a daily basis. In order to truly gain a new language, students must be exposed to it every day. Guess how often I have class with them? Maybe once a week. To be sure, they have regular English class two or three times a week besides, but there is very little speaking involved in these classes.

3.) This sort of goes along with the last one: Speaking. Homework should be reading and writing based. In class should be almost entirely listening and speaking. Students can study reading and writing on their own and tests ensure that they are mastering these skills. Listening and speaking, however, are very difficult to do on one`s own, especially speaking. In addition, students should be given more tapes and CDs to listen to. I`m not talking listening “exercises.” I mean conversation CDs like Pimsleur where they listen and participate in native conversations about everyday situations like going to the doctor, shopping at the grocery store, asking for directions, weather forecasts, etc. USEFUL stuff.

4.) One of the things I hate about the textbook (especially the new one we got this year) is I often find myself asking, “When are the kids ever going to use this stuff?” One lesson is about the American Revolution. Very interesting cultural information, but the vocabulary is pointless compared to more basic things like “where is the doctor`s office?” and “I have a sprained ankle.” The teachers ask me why I don`t like to use the textbook. THAT`S why.

5.) Classes are too big. In order to facilitate better speaking, classes should be limited to 20 students. The average class has thirty. Kids are too embarrassed to speak in class. This is not a problem unique to the Japanese education system (I remember kids refusing to speak Spanish in my Spanish classes), but is certainly worse in Japan than with any other country I have been exposed to (and I`ve taught students from just about every country.) They are simply not encouraged from a young age to speak in class at all, Japanese or English. To be honest, because the classes are so big, most students simply sit back and do nothing. It`s not just in English class. Every single class I`ve ever sat in on, most of the students are totally ignoring the teacher. They`re lost in the sea of bodies.

6.) All classes in Japan are lecture based. Studies show this is the worst way to learn. Students only retain about 10% of the information. Interactive classes produce the best results, with students retaining at least 30% of the information on the first time. The reason so few teachers use this method is because it is much more difficult and requires more preparation. Activities are a lot harder to plan and coordinate than simply talking your head off (or reading from the textbook, as I`ve observed a lot of teachers do in both Japan and the United States). Fortunately, Japan is slowly making the transition from lecture method to interactive method. But the underlying problem remains the large class sizes. You can`t have effective interaction with thirty kids. It would collapse into chaos.

7.) Students are not taught how to study on their own. Nearly every Japanese person I have talked to about my education is shocked that I never went to cram school. “How did you ever graduate from college?” they ask. “How did you even pass the college entrance exams?” Now I know Japanese has this reputation for having outrageously difficult entrance exams, and that`s true in part, but I actually took one just for the fun of it (an English one) and it really wasn`t that odd. The questions were all straight-forward; no tricks or overly-picky requirements. The English exams I used to teach to get into an American university are much more difficult and confusing. When I tell Japanese people that I simply studied on my own for exams, four hours every day after school, they are shocked. That`s not really unique; most of my friends studied a lot after school and none of us went to cram school and we all got into college and graduated near the top of our classes. Yes, it is possible to get kids to study on their own and not have to pay outrageous fees for cram school or a tutor. You just have to instill it in them at an early age. The problem is they start going to cram school when they`re itty bitty, so they never learn to study on there own. I have this problem with my kids all the time. They simply can`t do anything in English unless I read it to them. The instructions are already written out for them! They just say “wakarahen, wakarahen” until I come over and simply read the problem. They won`t even look at the paper until I come over and help them!

In two years, the classes are supposed to have switched over to total English, no Japanese. I was hired to be part of that transition. The other teachers are doing their best to help, but the students are fighting us tooth and nail. I suppose that`s to be expected. They`re kids. They don`t want to speak English. Why should they? At least, that`s their mentality. What we have to do is change that mentality.

Prayer Requests for this week: I have a cold and it`s really making me miserable. I really need to get better before my Wednesday night and Thursday night classes because those are my favorite but they can be really long and take a lot of energy. I`ve actually run out of ideas for my Wednesday night class because they`re so sharp and we`ve already covered so much…any English teachers out there with some ideas?

Until next time, keep reading and keep praying,

L.J. Popp

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