Our Lives | WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

This teacher's seen more ESL acronyms than you've had hot dinners

by Thomas Dillon

There he stands, a chiseled veteran of the ESL classroom. You can tell by his facial tic. And his hoary beard. And his deep-set eyes — eyes that have spied everything new under the sun. Most of it twice.

Not that he focuses on the past. Even after long years teaching English as a second language (ESL) in Japan, he still views himself as being on the cutting edge, an avant-garde teaching artist, as can be seen by what insists he now be called: The Adjunct Instructor Formerly Known as Bob.

“And yes,” he says, “my teaching techniques have changed through the years, always adjusting popular trends to fit with what actually works.”

He then provides a tour of his life and his methods: “When I first arrived, I was an advocate of TPR — total physical response. Lots of listening and physical activity.”

In those days, he explains, Japanese teachers taught “English” — a class aimed at passing entrance exams that applied only outdated grammar-translation modes of instruction.

Meanwhile, he was assigned a lesser animal called “English conversation,” which was considered lightweight and inconsequential, despite the fact that it used communicative language taught by a native speaker.

And now, decades later, are things different?

“Not really. The Buddhist precept that everything is in flux does not apply to Japanese education. It hasn’t changed that much. But I have. I gave up TPR.”

Why?

“First, because younger kids took to my classes like wild animals freed from a cage. I hadn’t counted on a physical response quite that total. And with older kids I got virtual mummies, from whom I could get no physical response whatsoever. Even if I smacked them with a chair.”

So?

“So I modified and went to participatory learning and action (PLA), in which students sort of map out their own classroom and thus gain greater motivation.”

And?

“By then I was teaching mostly at universities, and students chose to map out 90-minute naps. Although I admit their motivation was high.”

Next, he tells me, he switched to a content and language integrated learning (CLIL) approach. The idea was to teach interesting content through English and thus expand students’ language skills.

“The trouble,” he says, “was deciding on content they found interesting. There is a big world outside Japan and the students all realized that.”

He pauses in thought, then adds, “OK, maybe not all realized that, but most did.”

He pauses again.

“OK, maybe not most, but certainly a few — meaning if I didn’t have content aimed entirely at Japanese life, the class didn’t care. It still might have worked — they could have taught me, for example — but I found that beyond Tokyo Disneyland and J-pop, they had little to say.”

He then tells me he broke away from popular techniques and went with his own methodology. He called it Jokepedia.

“The idea was simple: I would come in and tell jokes. That’s all. Lots of fun and excellent hearing practice too. Plus, easy to grade. If they laughed, they got As. If they didn’t, they failed.

“Naturally, they caught on. As soon as I opened my mouth, the entire classroom roared. Every period was a riot.

“Then, one day, I rushed in and said, ‘Sorry to be late, but I had a fire. My house burned down.’ ”

And they burst apart laughing.

“No. Really. I lost everything. I’m penniless.”

They were rolling on the floor, clutching their sides.

“Listen, you monsters! I’m wiped out!”

And they almost choked with glee.

“Come to think of it, that’s the day I started hitting people with chairs. And they still laughed.”

He dubbed his next innovation the “Audio-Edible” method. For this, he would bring in various foodstuffs that students could have if their exercised their English.

“It was like training poodles to leap through flaming hoops. All for a cookie. But it worked like magic. I just didn’t count on the residual effects.”

Such as?

“Everyone got fat. And then when I ran out of money, the class revolted. They refused to do anything other than sit there and slobber. So I gave up.”

And so what is the current teaching flavor of the day?

“This one I’m sticking with. I call it WYAO, an acronym that rhymes with meow.”

And it means?

“The W is for ‘work.’ The rest you can figure out. In this approach, I assign tons of homework and students either do it or I show them the door. They work or leave. I don’t know if the extra effort will improve their language skills, but I figure it won’t hurt.”

“And what if they think you’re a homework maniac?”

“Then they’ve hit the nail on the head. If they try, I’m a softie. If they don’t, I’m their ex-teacher. Win-win for us both.”

But don’t schools like students to pass? And thus might he not soon be known as the “Adjunct Instructor Formerly Known as Employed?”

“Maybe. Yet in the meantime, everyone has to roll up their sleeves and try.”

Hard work in the English classroom? There you have it. You can’t get more avant-garde than that.

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

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