Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Kevin Karuta

I've got a whole bunch of kindergarten sessions lined up this month, and they started today. I always have mixed feelings about my occasional pre-school duties; the kids are adorable, but it is a much tougher gig than middle school, for several reasons:
  • Obviously 25 3-6 year-olds are harder to control than 25 12-15 year-olds.
  • Although at least one other teacher is always on hand, this is not a team-teaching scenario. That means that coming up with a lesson plan is entirely my responsibility, and I am in sole charge of the class.
  • Unlike middle school English teachers, kindergarten teachers generally do not speak English. This means that I am typically the most bilingual person in the room, which is a pretty sorry state of affairs. This is one area where I really feel the benefit of my slowly strengthening command of the language; these days I can produce just about broken Japanese (making heavy use of imperative sentences) to keep the class on the rails.
Today I feel I overcame these difficulties, and delivered easily the best kindergarten lesson of my career so far. I don't usually go into the details of my work on this blog, because I imagine talking shop is pretty dull for anyone who's not a teacher of English as a foreign language. But I am suitably proud of this one that I'm going to make an exception. Perhaps it'll help someone googling for ideas - us JETs aren't really trained for working with such a young age group.

I decided to base the lesson around The very hungry caterpillar, a book I fondly remember from my own infancy. I had considered this before, but dismissed it as being too advanced - how many foreign languages can you say 'cocoon' in? However, I decided to run with it on this occasion, figuring that since I was teaching the oldest class at the end of the academic year, it was the best shot I was going to get. Besides, I was hard up for other ideas.

It turned out to be a smart move. I am pleased to say that Harapeko aomushi ('the very hungry cabbageworm') is a firm children's favourite in Japan too, so most of the kids already knew the story, which helped a lot. In fact, the kindergarten had a huge Japanese version of the book, which made my hastily-ordered-off-amazon.jp, regularly-sized English one look a little pathetic.

First I got the kids to gather round me and I read the story with lots of gestures and animated facial expressions. Having done my homework and looked up words like 'caterpillar', 'cocoon', 'nibble' and 'butterfly', I was able to kind of act as interpreter for myself. The book presents a lot of educational possibilities: one could use it as a springboard to teach numbers, days of the week, or elementary entomology. But I decided to focus on the foods consumed by the insatiable larva. He eats 16 things: one each weekday, ten on his Saturday binge, and a single leaf for his pre-pupal meal on Sunday. Discarding the leaf as not being proper human food, that left me with 15. Normally, I would say that attempting 15 new vocab items in one lesson would be a mistake in middle school, and disastrously overambitious for pre-school. However, only four or five of them were truly novel; the kids all know the more basic fruits in English, and many of the other things are katakana loanwords in Japanese (chokoreeto keeki, sooseeji, aisu kuriimu, etc).

I had prepared picture flashcards for each of these things by scanning the book, digitally tidying up the images and printing them off as colour A5 pictures, then putting these in plastic pockets for protection. (Finding a scanner, negotiating permission to use it, discovering the software for it wasn't even installed, and then figuring out how to do this myself despite the twin obstacles of overzealous computer security and Japanese, was a mission in itself.) Anyway, I reviewed the vocabulary with these cards, and then used them for a game of karuta. To play, I line the kids up in four teams on one side of the room, and lay the cards out on the other. Each round, one representative from each team competes to be the first to slap their hand down on the picture I shout out, for which they are awarded a sticker.

I use karuta in virtually every kindergarten lesson I do. I was feeling bad about this lack of originality, but I've decided that it may actually be a good thing. Kids that age enjoy repetition, and routine helps lessons to go smoothly. Now as soon as I say 'karuta', the kids (and, importantly, the teacher(s)) have a fairly clear idea of what is required of them, at least at the places where I have semi-regular visits.

For the final part of the lesson, I gave each child a little paper badge bearing one of the 15 items. They sat in a circle while I stood in the middle reading the story. Whenever I said the word describing the thing on their badge, they were to run around the outside of the circle once. Additionally, whenever I said a number, they all had to clap that number of times - they were expecting it before each foodstuff, but the likes of 'one Sunday' and 'two weeks' always caught them out, the fools. The word 'caterpillar' was a cue for them to crawl around like insects, in as much as a mammal can imitate the gait of a hexapod. Finally, 'butterfly' had an analogous action assigned to it, so the game terminated with everyone running around flapping their arms. I think these drinking game-esque activities, where one must identify certain events and respond to them with arbitrary behaviours, work well with young children.

The kids seemed to love it, and that game took me up to the end of the 35-minute lesson nicely. I know from experience that there is nothing worse than trying to pad for ten minutes with pre-schoolers.

In other news:

Apparently a reporter from the Yamagata Shinbun wants to interview me, as part of a regular feature on the prefecture's ALTs.

I went boarding at the oddly named (especially considering that Japanese lacks the phonetic range to differentiate between the English short 'a' and short 'u') but very good Jangle Jungle on Sunday. It was very much geared towards the freestyle end of things, with kickers, boxes, quarter-pipes and many many rollers liberally dotted around. I came off a lip off-balance, and consequently my tailbone hit the hard packed snow with sufficient force that all I could do was emit feeble inhuman-sounding groans for several seconds as my jarred torso attempted to get its act together sufficiently to re-inflate my lungs. My body aching and confidence shattered, my day of riding was effectively over, though I did spend some time gingerly practicing riding switch on beginner runs, just to get my money's worth. Bearing in mind my mishap of last New Year, I feared the worst, but as 48 hours have now passed since the incident I think I'm in the clear.


  1. With all the preordained prompts, it all sounds a bit like The Very Hungry Caterpillar meets Singalong-a-Sound of Music. What damage did we do to you as an infant?? Dad

  2. Again I'm impressed that you're teaching small children - lots of clowning around? Sounds daunting.

  3. Also desperately weak pun this month.

  4. Yeah, there was a point this week when I was crawling around imitating a cat (just like George Galloway), and I thought to myself "something's gone wrong here, I have a PhD".

    I dreamt last night that you had set up an adult website. But it was quite prudish, as one might expect.