October 27, 2006

Suppressed voices, or just being polite?

Renata followed this up with an email. In response to my
these kids have been trained NOT to think, and NOT to rely on their own resources, to NOT trust themselves, to NOT believe in the value of their own experience or point of view - their "voice", in short.

Renata responds,
Now I won't agree there. Just they have been trained to not put it out in the classroom, which is a group of forty people, where too much personal brou ha ha can slow the agenda, which particularly at high school is entrance examinations…so like they separate the TPO to express their thoughts. That is to say, they just don’t let it all show in the classroom, in my experience. (Elementary school is quite creative and interesting, training independent opinions and the like). I've been working with a mix of Japanese and foreigners in the peace education certificate, and I see the foreigners can hijack the agenda with their verbosity (me too, arggghhh), whereas the Japanese are more able to sit and listen for longer stretches and figure out independently and ask questions after class if it’s not cleared up…if the Japanese system kills belief in own voice, as you say, how come there are so many wonderful and varied voices in a group of adult Japanese people when you get together to chat…

I agree. Japanese group dynamics mean that you really don't want to stick your neck out in a large group, because as they say the nail that sticks out gets hammered. But that doesn't explain the "stupid" behaviour in class which I described here and here. I'm not trying to make sweeping generalizations about the Japanese population, I'm trying to understand what is going in my classroom, which is where I work. It's all very well to say Japanese are quite vocal, creative and forthcoming in informal settings with people they feel comfortable with (that's probably true of just about anybody, too); the logical extension of that is to abandon the classroom and classes and work with people in informal groups, which is certainly not a bad idea, and one that has been developed by at least 2 EFL materials developers.

I KNOW they are creative and intelligent. And I'm NOT asking them to show it all off in front of everyone. I'll illustrate with an actual example. In my classes, students work in groups of 2-4, with a text and CD, at their own pace. I wander around sticking my nose and giving advice, making corrections (pronunciation usually). I come to one group of 3 girls, 2 of whom are practising a dialogue. The third mutters "I don't get it, I don't get it." I ask her what she doesn't get, but she can't tell me. She can't (or won't) identify what it is that is her stumbling block. She won't give me any help to help her. I suggest we go thru the dialogue and check her understanding, line by line. This way, we identify the problem: "as far as". She's with 2 other girls, and this group's been working together for months. She doesn't ask her friends what the phrase means, or ask to borrow their dictionaries (she doesn't have her own, surprise surprise). All the students in this class signed up voluntarily, even knowing that it would be harder than the regular class, and they all RE-signed up again in the second semester, too (even tho they could drop out).

Then I stay and listen as she practises the dialogue with a partner (I even had to prod her to do this, to move onto speaking after listening and writing). She seems to have trouble even remembering very short phrases. She often seems about to give up. She obviously has little confidence in herself, and this isn't about not wanting to "stick out" because both her partners are quicker and more fluent than she is. Maybe she's just not that interested in learning English, but if that's the case, why sign up for my class? Why tell me "I don't get it" when I come near? That's obviously a request for help.

I give her as much encouragement (stick and carrot) as I can, but I can't shake this feeling that she's either playing stupid, or she's exhibiting behaviour which she thinks/feels is normal or required for class but which involves making herself more stupid than she really is. And most of the other students are not that way (or at least, not as bad!

Being creative vs creating knowledge

In response to an earlier post, Renata left a comment and followed up with an email, both of which helped me to clarify my thinking:
I've been here twenty years, but I really don't see how you can call this culture any less creative than any other. All the art from the impressionists were copying Japan, makers of bone china got their inspiration from Imari pottery, Haiku inspired poets to make cinquains and diamantes and discover shape on the page...let's face it, there is as much freedom where you are as you take.

I wasn't referring to the ability to be creative so much as the nature of schooling and of the experience of school. Nor was I writing about how students might be outside of class. I was referring to the concepts of an education that merely requires students to reproduce knowledge ("you tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, you tell 'em, then you tell 'em what you told 'em, then you test 'em to see if they can tell you what you told 'em"), rather than create new knowledge. It has nothing to do with how creative people may or may not be, but rather what they are expected and allowed to do within the context of schools and classrooms.

Renata adds:
I think the newspaper is feeding on a national myth of free America...sometimes you go half way across the globe to catch up with yourself, but it's not so much about where you land as what you bring with you...and not having family around when you're abroad helps sometimes...the US is full of restrictions and patterns you have to fit into without realizing as much as any country.

I'd agree there. Certainly there are common myths about the US, much of which are simply "the-grass-is-greener" syndrome.
I was listening to a young lady artist (singer, forget the name, on the telly) who said she had this idea of freedom in the US and came in for a rude shock when they told her to make grades or go home, that she had to study AND dance, not just dance, and that she had underestimated the severity of US culture (it's a puritan society, after all).

Yes, Japanese are "amae". This year I have a handful of Chinese students in a class of 20 Japanese; the English ability of these Chinese students is all over the place, but in terms of hard work, enthusiasm and initiative, they simply wipe the floor. In the end of term listening test I gave, one of the Japanese students noticed the Chinese students taking notes (shock horror!). The Japanese student was so incensed by this "cheating" that he/she lost all interest in taking the test. The Chinese students will make notes of vocab they don't know, then will either ask me as I walk around the classroom, or look it up on their electronic dictionaries. If they don't have one, they'll ask/borrow from someone who does. By contrast, very few of the Japanese students do this: they seem to be waiting for me to tell them what the words mean, or perhaps just waiting for me to tell them to look up the words they don't know. It's pretty disheartening, to be honest!

Renata's comment reminded me of how I felt when I took a group of Japanese students to the UK for a month's study. The British EFL teachers were pretty frank and scathing in their opinion of the Japanese students' English and general attitudes. It was a wake-up call, like someone opening a window and letting in fresh air into a dull, overheated room. I had become so accustomed to the atmosphere, I no longer felt it odd.

Yet I have found it impossible to maintain a "tough" attitude, and little by little, laxness returns to the norm. Thanks for the reminder, Renata.

October 26, 2006

"They don't hear anything you're saying"

Doug Noon has been visiting my classrooms, unbeknownst to me, and wrote about them:
The achievers are great at following directions, and they remember everything you say, even if they don’t know what you mean, and they figure it out after a while. The kids who didn’t know what you were talking about to begin with just copy what you’re doing, and they don’t hear anything you’re saying.

I'm still having trouble with students failing to follow simple instructions, or not doing things they're not told to do but which to my mind are common sense: e.g. if you create a blog, you should remember the URL and your login and password or at least make a note of these, because you'll be wanting to go back to your blog and post there at some future date. I've had students create their blog, then be completely unable to find it again! It must be "you'll be wanting to return to your blog at some future date" part that's pure assumption on my part. After all, I didn't say remember your blog's URL.

A friend who's smarter than I am, made the following suggestion:
I always pass out a sheet of paper with blanks for students to write down their URLs and passwords for Wordpress, Moodle, and Flickr. I try to encourage them to use the same combos for all three and to write it down in another place as well, including making a digital copy to place on their hard drives.

To which I responded,
Why (oh why?) do I assume that they will realize they need to figure out their own way to remember these names and then do something about it? They never do!! Is this yet another example of how schools make people stupid?

I created a powerpoint presentation made up mostly of screenshots showing how to subscribe to a blog using bloglines. Of course, my presentation was a model of clear communication, and yet unbelievabley some students had problems with it! The problem (snark aside) was not so much they didn't understand the instructions, as I discovered when I went around the room (someone recently playfully suggested that the mark of a good IT teacher is how far they walk during class! Are they wandering around helping out, or are they behind their screen, checking their email?).

The problem was ... well, perhaps you can tell me! Here's what happened in one case which was, while not typical, not uncommon either.

Slide #2 says "go to www.bloglines.com". Clicking on the URL in the powerpoint slide has no effect (something I hadn't considered). I wonder what the kid will do so I wait and watch. Mad clicking and rattling the mouse! Then he turns to me and says "It doesn't work!" Resisting the urge to tell him "Well done!" dripping with sarcasm, I ask him how he might solve this problem. He immediately opens a new browser window. I'm mildly surprised that he didn't do this straight away but instead turned to me, and I'm already wondering why. Meanwhile, he's got the new window open and he's clicking around on the menu bar, on the "back" button, and other places, randomly without any order or method or even purpose that I can see. I ask him what he's doing, or rather what he is (supposed to be) trying to do. He looks at me blankly. I suddenly recall myself earlier that morning, moving purposefully and quickly from my bedroom to the kitchen, only to pause when I got there and wonder what it was I came here, so urgently and purposefully, to do. But I've got an excuse: I'm 50! This kid isn't even 20 yet (so still a kid in Japanese law)!

Feeling that it would be fun to tease this kid, but realizing I don't have all day, I remind him that the other window is a presentation slide which has instructions on it; perhaps we could take another peek at it, it might give us a hint as to what to do next. Mr Diplomacy, that's me.

This pattern is repeated: every few minutes I will have to remind the kid that he is supposedly working on a task, and the instructions for it are on the slides. I have to remind him, because he's out there clicking his mouse, opening new windows and closing them, clicking in bookmarks and etc at blinding speed. What is going on? Is it a short-term memory problem? He doesn't seem to be messing with me (I don't think he's that bright). He eventually finishes the task, but I'm already imagining (or trying to imagine) this kid in full-time employment in 4 years' time, driving a training instructor to distraction.

My pop-psychology analysis is that, this boy, and others like him, have learned not to trust their own instincts because they are usually "wrong". They must, instead, follow directions, even if it means not understanding the why's and wherefore's.

I am reminded of the children that John Holt writes about, the ones who randomly yet frantically shout out (im)possible answers to a question he has asked; instead of trying to reason it out, using the knowledge he knows they have, they seem (to Holt) to be sucked into a game of "getting the right answer". Instead of quiet confidence, he saw fear in their eyes, and that disturbed him enough to write about it, and investigate where that came from.

Is that what I'm witnessing, too? Is it fear that has distorted these kids' ability to learn, so that they act stupid?

October 21, 2006

Lucky Man - a hero

I've been a fan of Michael J. Fox's work as an actor since the first Back to the Future movie (it's a family favourite), but my interest grew into stunned admiration when I read Lucky Man, Fox's memoir which tells his life story especially the part after he developed Parkinson's. So I had to watch this political ad he made recently; tho I'm not into politics (this is really an ad for stem-cell research funding which is the most promising line of research for finding a cure for Parkinson's and several other diseases), and although, as Josh Marshall writes, it's "hard to watch".

Connectivism re-re-visited

In this post I wrote, concerning my use of in-class surveys:
The kids seem happy to go along with this, although they evince very little interest in each other's lives, and certainly don't see each other as potential teachers.

I was reminded of the truth of this, and of the connection with blogging the other day when I was (briefly) telling a friend about blogs and blogging and why I (and a lot of other people) found it so interesting. I told her about comments and how conversations can grow and blossom, and interconnections are made. She understood this well. I then told her of some of the difficulties I'd encountered in introducing students to blogging. One difficulty seems to be that students are not familiar with the idea that they can learn from each other. I have students practice in pairs or small groups a lot, and I encounter resistance to this from students. "I paid good money to learn from YOU!" they seem to be saying (some people think so loud you can hear them). "Why you force me to talk to my Japanese classmate who speaks even WORSE English than me?! I won't learn anything that way!! Do you really know what you're doing?"

They seem unfamiliar with the ideas that knowledge is constructed, that meaning does not reside in words, or that learning is a social activity. They don't see their classmates as potential teachers.

"It cuts both ways," my friend said; "it means they also probably don't see themselves as having anything to teach their classmates."

A light went on in my head at those words.

October 17, 2006

Constructivism - creating vs reproducing

There's been an interesting conversation about constructivism over at Doug's place.

Recently while re-reading some Paulo Freire, one of the concepts hit home with me: the idea that dominant cultural groups impose a pedagogy of "reproduction" rather than "creation": students are encouraged or forced to merely reproduce knowledge rather than create new knowledge, which helps maintain the status quo.

This has inspired me to re-evaluate my own teaching, and to try and find more ways to emphasize the creation of new knowledge. I feel this is particularly important in the culture where I live and work, because Japan has a long, hard tradition (especially in the arts) of reproduction. A friend recently sent me this NYTimes article (you'll need to register, but it's free) about ex-patriate Japanese in New York; the article gives a good sense of the oppressiveness of this culture:

As a Japanese version of slackers, such young people
are often derided at home as selfish for drifting
through part-time jobs or trying to develop talents in
the arts — photography, music, painting, dance —
rather than contributing to society by joining a
corporation or marrying and having babies. The
pressure can be intense....

Peter Pachter, who runs the American Language Communication Center in the Hotel Pennsylvania on Seventh Avenue near Penn Station, has watched the ranks of his Japanese students increase 14 percent, to about 500 in the last two years.

“There’s a feeling that they kind of blossom here; they finally get a chance to express themselves,” he said....

“It was so hard in Japan to have the confidence to
say, ‘I can be what I want to be, I can do what I want
to do,’ ” Kaori, now in her 30’s, said in a
mellifluous voice. “New York is very free. I thought,
‘If I want to do this, I can do it. In Japan you have
to follow the rails.”...

Slowly, Ms. Mimura was gaining confidence about living
in New York, discovering an inner strength. She signed
up to go to a national dance contest in Boston, where
she made it to the semifinals. Her new friend, Smiles,
wished her “Ganbatte!” a combination of “Good luck”
and “Knock ’em dead” in Japanese.

But she didn’t win. She blamed too much technique and
not enough feeling for her loss. She needed to let the
freedom of New York and the let-it-all-hang-out
attitude of Americans into her heart while dancing,
she said. “Japanese dancers copy, not create,” she
said, “and I’m more like typical Japanese dancer.” She
resolved to be more American.

It reminded me of an FT article about the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara:

As a teenager Nara, like most young Japanese, came under intense pressure to conform, to stop inhabiting his "girlish" imaginary world of drawings and talking to animals. "I took up judo and got into rugby. I wanted to show that I was a man now and into sports. I stopped drawing as much and started hanging out with other guys. When I look back on that time, it's somehow difficult to remember who I was. I didn't really have my own identity at all."...

Pressure to conform is strong in Japan, where the transition between the uninhibited world of children and the custom-bound existence of adulthood is particularly abrupt. Until about the age of seven, Japanese children lead a generally carefree existence, allowed by indulgent mothers to play games and explore the world. Once they start primary school and begin the arduous process of learning the 2,000-character alphabet, the serious business of becoming a member of Japan's group-oriented society begins.

In Germany, Nara was finally free from this group pressure and was able to ask himself who he really was. "I finally realised that my real self was the self that used to play by himself as a kid."

What got me commenting on Doug's post was the quote from Brad:
I don’t know the extent to which constructivism can work for math education as an isolated strategy.

I understand only a little about schema theory, and even less about constructivism, but my instinct tells me constructivism is not a teaching method or approach, and even less an isolated strategy.

What I gained the most from re-connecting with some of Paulo Freire's ideas, was an inspiration to take a fresh look at my own behaviour and thought-processes, instead of being focussed almost exclusively on my those of my students. So now that my awareness has been raised, I have to ask myself, is it possible to live and work in this country for over 25 years and not be influenced by this oppressive, "reproductive" culture? Was I that way inclined before I came (hence the attraction)? "Creating new knowledge" now seems to me important for my own sanity and survival, even if I cannot influence the students who pass through my classrooms.

I'm not even sure I know what "creating new knowledge" means in practical, classroom-activity terms, but I've been experimenting with class surveys: I pick a theme and dictate a few questions to students, then let them add a few questions of their own, then off they go, interviewing as many of their classmates as time allows. We're using linguistic elements from the textbook chapter we've just finished, but we are (I feel) creating new knowledge because we're using the learned language to discover things we didn't know about ourselves as a class.

The kids seem happy to go along with this, although they evince very little interest in each other's lives, and certainly don't see each other as potential teachers. They seem to have learned that studying is a solo activity, where collaboration or cooperation is too akin to "cheating" to have much validity. I'm still working on the next, vital, step, which is how to return the shared knowledge gained back to the class as a whole (classes are not long enough for each student to interview everyone).

In one class, students worked in groups of 3-4 and created their own surveys. I then had them create graphs of the results on Excel, and present the graphs and results to the class. However, many students complained they had not been given enough time to "prepare". And few paid much attention to the presenting group - a depressingly common phenomenon in Japanese classrooms, I've found. It's as if presenting is one of those "school" things, something that must be done to satisfy the teacher, but that has no intrinsic value in itself; probably because (in their experience at least) it never did.

October 16, 2006

Moodle moans revisited

In response to my whinings about Moodle, I got some help. One Moodle vet who offered help asked me to invite him as co-administrator of my site so he could see for himself what was going on. He even went to the trouble of installing Moodle using Fantastico, as I had, so he could see how Fantastico distributed the various Moodle files, especially the language files. He discovered that the new Moodle upgrade, which creates a separate language folder in a folder called "moodledata", under Fantastico this folder is called "uploaddata", and (in my case at least) was still inside the "public_html" folder, together with all the other language files created under the previous (1.5) version of Moodle. He hypothesized that one or more of these language files was/were interfering with the charset selection, and so he suggested trashing the old language files except "en" and "en_utf8".

This solved one problem: the encoding of the pages in Japanese EUC, instead of utf8. However, it failed to allow users to be able to save and recall pages written in Japanese utf8: the text always appeared as ?????

A few days later, a collleague who is also using Moodle showed me how his is set up, and I was able to re-organize how my front page looks. We also suspected that our php and MySQL versions were not up to the required versions, and that might be the problem. However, my server (at least) IS up to the required version, so that is not the answer.

I think I will put this on the back burner for a bit, and simply tell my students they can only post in English for the time being.

October 11, 2006

Cursive handwriting in decline - surprised?

Josh Marshall points to:
...a fascinating article in tomorrow's Post
about the decline of cursive handwriting. I'm 37. And I certainly
remember fairly intensive instruction in handwriting -- first block
letters and then the more daunting and advanced cursive handwriting,
with the dreaded off-white paper with one solid line, one dotted below
it, and another solid beneath the dotted one -- all to keep your letter
creations bounded and in check. But, I guess not surprisingly given the
ubiquity of computers and keyboards these days, instruction in
handwriting has dwindled to almost nothing.

October 10, 2006

Building community

Speaking of building community, here's a novel idea. On yer bike, mate!

October 08, 2006

Not all women who veil are oppressed

Jack Straw, a former British Foreign Secretary, currently Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal, has caused an uproar when he revealed that he feels uncomfortable with veiled women, and asks those veiled Muslim women who consult with him to remove it.

However, in another story today:
Ruth Kelly yesterday defended the wearing of the veil as a 'personal choice' by Muslims that must be respected. She made her comments as the Cabinet began distancing itself from Jack Straw's disclosure that he asked women attending his constituency surgery to uncover their faces.
What most interested me about the piece, though, was this:
Earlier this year, Kelly co-hosted a summit with Muslim women alongside Tony Blair. The veil was not raised as an issue, but the hijab - the more common traditional headscarf - was: she said the conversation had 'challenged her assumptions' about covering up.

'I, along with many people, probably thought that some people wear the hijab not through choice but because they were expected to, and I found exactly the opposite,' she said. 'There was an overwhelming view that the people who were wearing the hijab wanted to and, among those who were not, some of them would have liked to.'

October 05, 2006

More Moodle moans

(Sigh) OK, so I upgraded to Moodle 1.6, then discovered I had to install any extra languages I wanted. The help file says I must first backup my database. I'm perfectly willing to follow instructions... if only I could understand them. This "help" file was not only unhelpful but complete Greek to me, so I went ahead and upgraded without backing up my boring old database, then imported the language I wanted (Japanese).

It took me a while to find the administration page where this is managed, (due to the weird-assed way I installed Moodle).

Anyway, I figured it out and reckoned I was all set for class. To cut a long boring story short, here are the problems I, or rather students, encountered:

1) garbled text. EVERYTHING is garbled. Even the text on the radio buttons!

1 student eventually figured out a workaround by choosing "Japanese EUC" (NOT UTF-8, which is the encoding Moodle uses for Japanese language text. Figure that one out) from the "encode" menu. But you have to select this encoding anew on each new page!! This makes the English-language text appear properly, but won't fix the Japanese text in every case.

Students who logged in using Netscape instead of IE got even more dramatically garbled pages! I didn't bother even trying to figure that out. Just sigh, exit Netscape, fire up IE.

2) I had set up some fora for them to post to, but the majority of students, when they clicked on "add a new discussion topic" all they got was a completely blank white page.

3) Even after figuring out how to un-garble the text enough to be able to read the English-language text I had written, the Japanese-language text I had written showed up as merely a bunch of question marks! Nothing fixed this problem; not changing the encoding, even logging out, and selecting "En" as the language before logging in again (then logging out AGAIN and selecting "Ja" as the language, then logging in AGAIN).

Another disaster. Obviously with Moodle acting up like this, it is out of the question to ask students to do any assignments on it.

Altho my students are not enamored of blogs and blogging, it was a relief to be able to log in and post on blogger without any major hassles.

Moodle is living on borrowed time as far as I am concerned. Perhaps some of today's problems were due to my not properly backing up the database before importing the Japanese UTF8 language facility. But I simply do not have the time or energy to spend on learning how to deal with MySQL or whatever it is. I just want plug and play!! "Here's the Moodle URL. Here's how you login. Here are the assignments you need to go. Go!" End of story. That's how simple I want it!!

I know. It's free. So? I shouldn't complain? I'm more than willing to pay, if I could be sure of getting a hassle-free service.

October 01, 2006

Online Professional Development for teachers

From a post by Teacher in Development Aaron Nelson, I read today about Connexions, and took a look at this course. Education for the New Millenium. Sounds interesting, and it's all free. Can't judge as to the quality of content yet, tho, and I'm too busy at the moment to check it out just now. It's bookmarked, tho, and I'll be back.