It's maybe a little un-Japanese of me to say so, but I think I'm really starting to get the hang of this teaching lark. It's about time.
If you work in junior high like I do, you are seldom required to plan whole lessons. However, the ability to pull a 10, 15, 20-minute activity out of your arse at short notice is extremely valuable. For a long time, this caused me considerable anxiety. Initially, I needed to spend at least half an hour meditating on the task at hand before I could even start crafting worksheets or whatever. And I lacked the confidence to just come up with something and run with it; I would always want to check with the teacher that what I was doing was alright. Given how little free time teachers have during a school day, this is not entirely straightforward.
The other day, just as a teacher was heading out to her second period class, she asked me to come up with an activity for the third period one we had together. In some ways, I think this kind of time pressure can be helpful, as it forces you to keep things simple. Some of my most debacular lessons have been the result of overthinking it and coming up with something rather too high-concept. Anyway, I managed to whip up a whip up a fairly routine worksheet, complete with instructions in Japanese (you have to cut the first-graders a bit of slack) in time for it to be dropped, hot off the photocopier, into the following lesson.
Today I had a similar request, but with literally 20 minutes' notice. Drawing heavily from an activity I cooked up this time last year, I delivered the goods. Rather like programming, I think one of the keys to successful teaching is to have an ever-expanding bag of tricks from which you can draw whatever the situation requires. What I'm particularly pleased with is how I introduced by hastily improvised activity. Often, in seat-of-the-pants moments like this, I'll panic and give way too little by way of instruction, meaning that the smartest 20% of the class have a rough idea of what is required of them, while the rest are baffled. But today I got it right: model what is expected, practice the pattern, check the meaning, practice again, and only then commence the activity.
Anyway, enough self-congratulation, I'll tell you about my weekend. I got up reasonably early on saturday, and though I felt a little jaded from the teacher's party the night before, I decided that if I just refused to acknowledge that I was hungover, then I would be cured by the power of suggestion. I jumped on my bike and rode the 1.5 hour trip to Yonezawa. I was attending an imonikai (potato stew party). As I've mentioned before, these events are an autumn institution in Yamagata. A couple of weeks back I went to the big one in Yamagata City. I didn't bother to blog about it because nothing all that remarkable happened. Executive summary: it was an uncomfortably hot day and they had a really big pot of stew.
This one was a more intimate affair, and was organised by the local international relations association. Events like this are a bit weird, but quite enjoyably so. They are always composed of a bunch of Westerners (mainly ALTs,) assorted Asians (mostly women), and Japanese people who are, for whatever reason, interested in engaging with gaijin. I find it quite touching that people are willing to go to the trouble of hosting stew parties to welcome foreigners. Do we have equivalent events at home? I'm guessing not; the British populace seems more intent on telling immigrants to stop taking our jobs and go back to where they came from.
Also present at these events are kids, many of them half-Japanese. I don't seem to engage with young children quite as effortlessly as some people, but I'm getting better. I banked some goodwill early on by having a kickabout with a very lively boy of about seven. Although I am terrible at football by the standards of a British male, I can hold my own among American/Antipodean twenty-somethings and Japanese children. I took a painful spill on some gravel (sandals aren't really ideal sports footwear) and as a result my grazed knee has been weeping plasma ever since. It's shaping up to be an excellent scab, almost as good as when I nutted a rock while snowboarding back in '01.
We ate the imoni (pronounced like the mid-leg joint of a member of My Chemical Romance - the title pun works better in writing than it does out loud) and then, as appears to be the done thing, we finished off the stew by adding curry powder and noodles to make karee udon. The party wound down about 2pm, but since we had plans for the evening, we had a couple of hours to kill. Along with a couple of Chinese students we'd befriended, we chilled out at Uesugi Shrine. If you're ever at a loose end in Yonezawa, that's the place to go. It's lovely there.
That evening there was a festival to celebrate the 450th anniversary of... something. (Yup, still not interested in history.) This meant a samurai parade, and our man in Yonezawa had managed to swing it so that we could take part. For the second time, I donned the armour of a lowly samurai foot soldier, though this time I was in the more understated blue-and-brown squadron - no bright red pantaloons for me on this occasion. Also, this time I got a long spear as well as my katana, giving me the opportunity to literally not touch things with a ten-foot pole.
We paraded through the streets to the shrine. I wasn't quite sure whether we were supposed to act like fearsome warriors, but I decided not to and instead grinned, waved, and gave peace signs to onlookers. There was then a period of hanging around, during which my morale crashed a bit. I was tired, dehydrated, wearing heavy armour and sadistically designed sandals, and finding it increasingly difficult to keep up my hangover denial. However, after a sneaky run to a vending machine to buy some Calpis with the money I'd stashed in my sheath (clattering the machine with my back-flag when I tried to retrieve the can), my spirits were buoyed.
For the return leg of the parade, we were to dance. Thankfully we were relieved of our huge spears. The dance was mercifully simple, and seemed well suited to samurai, both in terms of its macho air (lots of punching movements) and not requiring too much flexibility from our armoured bodies. By the time we were approaching the end-point of the parade, the gaijin squadron (including the Chinese girls we'd acquired at the imonikai) had it down, and were looking rather impressive (obviously, I couldn't see myself). I think we were dancing with more gusto than most of our fellow warriors, and we seemed to attract quite a few cameras.
The climax of the parade saw us circling around a plaza to the ever-quickening beat of a colossal taiko drum in the centre. There was something exhilaratingly primal about being part of a crowd all dancing in synchrony to that pounding rhythm. If I do another top ten next year, I think that moment will feature.
Once the festival was over, we hung around for a while posing for photos before retiring to take off our sweaty outfits. There then followed a surreal episode where we went to a convenience store that appeared to be the premier hangout for youths who, judging by their attire, appeared to be straight outta Compton, rather than a small city in rural Japan. We were none-too-subtle about laughing at them; gleaning particular amusement from the gender balance of the crew being similar to the average computer science tutorial. Having said that, the few shawties who were present deserve a special mention for just how ludicrous their get-up was. Anyway, for all the gangsta attitude they were trying to exude, they didn't give us any hassle. Which was good; this was one occasion when I didn't want any Yonezawa beef.