November 14, 2004

More notes on November 12th autonomy class

A continuation of the previous post.

One of our purposes in this class (indeed, in all our classes) is to make learning fun, to create an atmosphere that will remind students that learning can be fun, and that fun is an important part of learning. So many Japanese classes (and I've observed quite a few at my children's various schools) are unbelievably boring. It's as if Japanese teachers (ALL of them!) believed solely in the transmission model of teaching/learning, and have never heard of (let alone studied) HOW to teach: the focus is entirely on the tranmission of information; just open up those craniums and pour the knowledge in. Simple! What is there to learn about teaching?! Just teach! In particular, it seems to me, that many teachers do not distinguish between language-teaching and the teaching of other subjects: English is taught as knowledge/information, not as a skill. Not only that, but there seems to be no debate about the matter! The result is incredibly boring classes, all taught the same way.

My colleague are I see our job as partly to break this habit of thinking, namely that learning English is boring and difficult and involves 100% studying (which is boring and difficult!). Many of our students tell us this: English is difficult; learning English is difficult, learning English means studying it (it is only recently that my colleague and I have been pointing out that there is a difference between the studying and learning).

This class is a second-year class (and above); it is not open to freshmen. As my colleague and I have both taught freshmen classes for the last 3 years, and between us have covered all the sections, and as this class is now a compulsory class for sophomores, between us we know all the students in our classes.

Amongst this year's cohort of 2nd-years, there is a small number of "difficult" students, students who seemed particularly unsuited to university, and that was clear from last year. There is 1 boy, for instance, who never comes to class on time and who never brings anything with him: no paper, pencil, textbook, dictionary; nothing. He has to borrow everything, which a) annoys the teacher, b) gives him a chance to chat and fool around with classmates, and c) gives him plenty of opportunities for creative manipulation of the truth, all 3 of which he excels at. Another boy was part of a group of 3 who, when they heard in the first class of last year that my time-limit for full attendance was 20 minutes after the start of class (later than that and they are marked as "late" and 2 "lates" = 1 absence), hung around outside the classroom until 19 minutes were up, then loudly all came in together. This boy, unlike his two mates, seemed genuinely interested in English and was actually quite good (relatively speaking); he likes English pop songs and can sing quite a few, and would do so, usually under his breath whenever I approached him, trying to get my attention. In my class last year, this group of 3 did their best to fail the class, but I made them work and they passed (just). I genuinely like all 3 of them, they have interesting, creative personalities and are not afraid of being different. In this year's class we have 2 of the three (the third is in another colleague's class who is not part of the autonomy experiment), and they show up irregularly. My colleague has spent some time talking to this boy, trying to make a connection with him and stimulate his interest in learning generally and in English in particular, trying to cure him of his disaffection.

One of our requirements (and this needs review) is to write a short report about what they do in each class, why they did it, and what they got out of it. Last week, this boy had some questions about the report: he wasn't clear what he was supposed to write (we provide a bilingual form). After listening to my explanation he sighed and said "English is difficult". He had written his answers in English, and told me how hard he found it just to put together an English sentence. I forgot to mention to him that, as the evaluation of the material and his self-reflection sections were the two most difficult ones, writing them in Japanese was acceptable.

A rather different kind of student caught my attention today: a quiet girl who always works alone and always uses the SRA kit. In order to create a relaxed atmosphere, I play background music, usually something British, either pop or classical. Today I was playing Paul Gilbert (also here; and here's how he learns Japanese). And I asked her if the music bothered her. Major problem.

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