Sunday, September 19, 2010

Talking 'bout my demonstration

What a week! Unusually, I really feel I've earned every last yen. Which makes it all the more galling that the Japanese government is overtly devaluing them.

Let's start with last saturday. There's an annual tradition among Yamagata JETs (and hangers-on, i.e. private ALTs and foreign university students) of having a big party in the woods to welcome the newcomers. I'll admit that I did drink rather heavily during this bucolic shindig, as did most other people. For reasons that are difficult to elucidate, by the end of the night virtually all of the men, and a surprising number of the women, were shirtless.

So, when I hit the futon in my rustic log cabin, I was expecting to wake up to a hangover. However, nothing prepared me for just how horrendous I felt. It turned out that I had simultaneously fallen victim to a nasty head cold as well as my own overindulgence. (No, honestly; the cold persisted through the week, and quite a few other teachers around the staffroom are sneezing and coughing into their facemasks.) On top of that, hanging out in a forest for hours gives the local insect population carte blanche to feast on one's exposed limbs (few limbs are as blanche as mine). So I also had a collection of fiendishly itchy bites to contend with on sunday. It was, to use an overused phrase, a perfect storm.

On monday I was still feeling distinctly under the weather, but unfortunately there was serious work to do. You see, Japanese schools regularly hold demonstrations lessons, where some poor teacher(s) is required to give a lesson with a room full of important people watching, who will later pick over their every move in excruciating detail. I had dodged this bullet for a while, but it was only a matter of time until an English demo lesson coincided with my stint at a school. It was my turn on Friday.

The teachers I was assisting had decided that the lesson should showcase our use of digital media. The point of the lesson was "how to X" and "what to X", so I spent a couple of free periods taking photos of myself looking like a dumb gaijin: "I don't know how to buy a train ticket", "I don't know what to do at tea ceremony", etc. My favourite was the very much based-on-a-true-story "I don't know how to eat edamame", where I'm stuffing whole pods of baby soybeans into my mouth.

After that, I had to face my fear and be videoed pretending to be a reporter interviewing someone so rich that she didn't know how to cook for herself. This was at the end of a ten-hour day, during which I'd been feeling like condensed shit. In the resulting awful video, I am visibly flushed and sweaty.

We iteratively trialled and refined our demo lesson on the other third-year classes through the week. On top of this, I had a reasonably full schedule of classes anyway, as this school embraces team teaching rather enthusiastically. Not that I'm complaining; I'm generally happy to be occupied and feel valued. On top of that, I was helping out with after school speech contest training at a different school. I'm a victim of my own success: two of my kids won their respective divisions so have gone through to the prefectural competition.

Friday came, and although I was a little nervous, I don't think I was bricking it nearly as much as my co-teachers (it was actually two classes; I was to do a crafty transfer halfway through). I think there were two reasons for my comparative calm:
  • As an ALT, I felt I was under less scrutiny than them. I consider my status to be somewhere between that of a legitimate teacher and an educational resource. A tool, if you like.
  • I was under the mistaken impression that the purpose of the exercise was training. Only after the event was I informed that it was in fact assessment. The people watching were not other teachers there to learn, but inspectors there to pass judgment.
I felt fairly pleased with how the lesson went; there were, at least, no glaring cock-ups. Afterwards I got to sit in on another lesson. I opted for 'morality', because this is an entry on the timetable that has always intrigued me. I was hoping to get a glimpse of some sinister social engineering that would explain the unsettling community-mindedness of the Japanese people. Alas, no such luck - it appeared to be just your standard overcoming adversity shtick. With some furious dictionary work, I figured out that the gist of the lesson was about a famous ice skater whose father died of cancer, and then she got diagnosed with it too.

In the afternoon we had a feedback and discussion session. Of course, I had only the most rudimentary grasp of what was going on. Nevertheless, my opinions were solicited. Only being able to output your views without inputting anyone else's puts one in quite a precarious position, so I tried to keep quiet and play it safe as far as possible. At one point, I was pleased to hear that we were being complemented on our 'pattern practice ju jitsu'. Turns out, ju jitsu literally means something like 'fulfillment' or 'perfection'. Anyway, I was later filled in on roughly what had been said, and our lesson was received largely positively, with only a few minor and constructive criticisms on specifics. Job's a good 'un.

After school we went out for a traditional party to celebrate. It's been a good few months since I did the whole sitting on the floor, eating sashimi, pouring drinks for each other thing, so I was well up for it.

There's an inter-school sports day coming up (there seem to be quite a few of these). Virtually every teacher coaches a club of some kind. Thus, the highlight of the night was going around the room, with everyone taking it turns to give a rousing speech about how they would lead their team to certain victory. The tone was very much tongue-in-cheek, and as far as I could gather the oratory was a mixture of Kanye West-style ludicrous grandstanding and playful trash-talking directed at the other coaches. When it comes to school sports, it seems that the scrupulously modest demeanour usually upheld by the Japanese can be suspended for a few minutes of good old-fashioned bragging.

I tagged along to the obligatory nijikai (second party), which was at an izakaya. By this point things were starting take a turn for the disgraceful - there was a lot of talk of 'Amazons' and 'Asian beauties' being directed at slightly unimpressed-looking women by boozy, rowdy men. This sort of behaviour isn't really becoming for a bunch of teachers, but fortunately we had taken some stealth measures. For one thing, we went out in the opposite end of town from the school. But just in case that wasn't enough, everyone was cunningly not addressing each other as sensei, but rather using the terms appropriate to business colleagues. It was an ingenious plan, only slightly undermined by the fact that they talked about school for a solid half hour.


  1. Did you wear a facemask through your illness or did you just walk around coughing in all your healthy workmate's faces?

  2. No, I didn't wear a mask, in a shameful example of a gaijin smash. I really don't like them, because they make my glasses steam up.

  3. I didn't know that edamame were soy beans too - what a versatile bean.