Cold War

Cold whirlwinds are raging, making a door bang, empty cans roll on the road and crushed by a passing car, and fallen leaves dance crazily. A typical daily phenomenon I can observe at this time of the year : January to February.

I kind of miss a nice Indian summer we had some time ago. I miss it for sure, but that’s not because I can enjoy a walk on a balmy afternoon. Rather I found it easier to adjust myself to the room temperature. Now, outside weather being as it is, the temperature of the classroom I teach is kept as high as 26 degrees Celsius. The Japanese air conditioner never fails to work as accurately as you can imagine. I hate it.


(Autumn is the best!)

It is therefore my personal ritual that when I enter the room, I look inside to see what the students are wearing, and how warm it is inside. If the panel indicates it is higher than 23 degrees, I turn it off as I open the door to the classroom. I don’t mention the temperature a bit and the class starts.

Now, I should be waiting for my students to retaliate. At the beginning of the class, students are still nervous. As class discussion goes on, however, tension finally starts to melt and the students come to … to realize it’s too cold. One “frozen” student goes out of the room to turn on the air conditioner and set the room temperature at 26℃. (Our school rules do not say who is responsible for the room temperature, by the way.)

I will never let it happen. A lot is at stake. I don’t have another shirt in my bag. From a 100-minute, passionate talk with lots of jotting on the blackboard at the temperature of 26 degrees Celsius results a lot of sweat. If I keep wearing a sweated shirt for the rest of the day, I will end up seeing my doc early tomorrow morning, and see myself teaching classes in a hoarse voice. Or as the worst-case scenario goes, I will have to take a leave of absence, meaning I am not paid.

Thus an intangible war has broken out. The “war” metaphor may not be the most appropriate because my students seem to be having fun with me in class. But the thing is…it’s too warm in winter. (FYI it’s just too warm in summer, too. Again, the temperature is set at 26 when I need it down to 22! Now, the “teaching is a war” metaphor applies.)


Killing two birds with one stone

I WAS WRITING for a new post last night. When I got it all done, I published it and let my followers know about it via Twitter and facebook. Then I deleted all of it.

As I read the post again, I got the impression that there might be some people who would become disappointed and even hurt. In the article, I introduced a negative attitude (or so I think) of average Japanese learners of English and blamed it for their inability to speak English. This topic is a very sensitive issue to discuss. Some authors and publishers, as well as institutions, take advantage of it to make a profit. This is because there is enough demand from consumers, or (novice) language learners who cannot improve their ability. Therefore, I thought I would end up discouraging all those learners by pointing out what could otherwise have been ignored.

If so, and this is a mere speculation, then that’s not what I had intended. As a language teacher, my job does not lie so much in discouraging learners as in encouraging them to learn more and get better results.


Thus no sooner had I published the post than I deleted it.

Then, what good does this new post have? After writing all this, I now realize this has such a cathartic effect on me. I teach (the TOEFL) writing for a better score, but the act of writing itself can make you feel better. You can kill two birds with one stone.

p.s. If you do not understand what I wrote about in the first half of this post for the lack of specific description, never mind. It is all written for my own sake 😉


Things you take for granted are not given at all.

I have always noticed the differences in learning environment between the Tokyo metropolitan area and the rural, countryside (where I was born and raised). When I was in high school, it was impossible to buy a foreign book in one day. I was lucky, because in those days, I couldn’t have enjoyed foreign books. But as a university student, I had a hard time ordering foreign books.

First off, I had to take a bus to get to the nearest train station, where I took a train to the terminal. Then I took a ferry (boat) to finally reach the mainland of Japan. Then I could finally get to the destination by train. It took a half day to get there. In the bookshop, I couldn’t find the book I was looking for.  So I ended up going to the counter to fill out the order form.

Still, I was lucky. The book would be sent to my address in a couple of weeks…or months.

Now I sometimes talk to some of my clients who live in a less developed country. They say it is very hard to get a prep book for the TOEFL. When it comes to those books in Japanese, you should forget about it once and for all. You will end up waiting forever in vain. I made one of my clients a promise to give materials he needs in an electronic form. Now he is lucky. He couldn’t get the material himself, but he was able to reach someone who can give it to him. That was another (regional) gap to be filled.

A voiceless class

As a teacher (or instructor or whatever you like to call a profession who talks in front of a group of learners), my voice is very important. I know it is, but not until it is gone… and it IS gone now.

I realized that it was fading in the reading class yesterday. If my voice had completely gone in the reading class, I would have gone through another tough time. The reading class requires the teacher to take initiative and conduct class by doing most of the talking. For the last five minutes I found it hard to speak, no matter how much I coughed, feeling as if something was stuck somewhere in the throat.

I had a cold.

Today I’m teaching a TOEFL Speaking class, which is much more benign to my throat than the reading class. I have already made a lot of material to be used when students practice in pair. While they work on the material, my throat will take a rest. Anyway, I will ask them to gather closer to me today so that I can even whisper to make myself heard. My voice may be gone, but that can be taken advantage of when it comes to teaching.


One of the questions that we will be dealing for today’s TOEFL Speaking class is on obesity. It is a frequently asked topic, so I think it will be to the students’ advantage if we discuss it in detail.

According to the prompt, obesity is becoming an epidemic, and therefore its prevention, as well as treatment, should be taken seriously. At the same time, citizens can make use of common sense to prevent the problem. They should eat more veggies, fruits. More milk, instead of carbonated soft drinks or juice. TV ads on fast food also negatively (and maybe effectively) affect younger viewers. Etc, etc…

I will also introduce one famous lawsuit on obesity: that is Pelman vs McDonald’s Corp (2003).  In a nutshell (as I remember correctly) Pelman frequently used McDonald’s. This led him to become obese, increasing the level of bad cholesterol, causing a range of diseases. Pelman decided to file a class action lawsuit.

It can give my students a good opportunity to think about their lifestyles. After all, many of them will follow such a lifestyle very soon.


Good Teacher?

I had an opportunity to talk with a friend of mine who turned out to be a professor at a university in Japan. We used to work together and I am very glad to keep a good relationship with this former co-worker. What led to this reunion was … maybe I should refrain from exposing too many things here? Anyway, she wanted to know in detail about teaching the TOEFL and I shared with her what I knew about it. The talk itself was very much fun and I would share as much as possible here, if I really could, but I shouldn’t (self-control!). However there are two things that she requested that I share.

One is that university students do not have a practical skill in note-taking. While you hear a lecture, you may want to take notes on it, for sure, but students do not voluntarily do so, except that the prof asks them to. Our assumption was the same; this is probably because of kind teachers at high school and even kinder teachers at preparatory school. They change colors of the chalk they use according to their principles: important rules are written in red,  Japanese translation is given in yellow, and the others are written in white, for instance. Students are mainly responsible for copying the blackboard. We laughed together, knowing that this does not apply to university. This professor reiterated the nonsensical excuses to change the color of the marker (on the whiteboard). “I use red, not because what I am writing is important or anything. I use red, just because that’s the color that I happened to hold. “Hey, Shinobu, you should remind them of this back at your prep school!”

… and I did. And I wrote it in red.

Keeping a good balance

I am now adding a final touch to the handouts for the seminar, “how to successfully take the TOEFL test”, that is. Luckily enough, I’ve got more participants than I’d expected. I was wondering if I would be able to hold the seminar in the first place when I first made its announcement. I know I am known to those whose purpose is to get as much as 105 or 110, but I am not sure if my lecture would be appealing to those who have not even taken the TOEFL yet. So this seminar was a kind of challenge to me. I will make this seminar as meaningful and instructive as it can.

It’s so easy to give a seminar that is satisfying to the host himself, but it is so much harder to give a seminar that satisfies the actual participants. There may be a set of information that is so obvious to me, but not that familiar to the participants. At the same time, however, those basic sets of information can be learned by the participants themselves. There are a range of channels available to get such information (let’s assume they are valid and reliable). So if the seminar is filled with those basics, I will be dumbfounded to read the reflection and feedback of the participants.

Difficult, huh?

This, however, always applies to the classes I teach like every day. Do I have to give detailed explanation on this sentence? Should I refer to a similar Japanese custom to this? Am I talking too much now? How many more seconds do the students need to get the task done? Class should be meaningful to students, not teachers. Teachers can find pleasure somewhere else, but for students, pleasure must be there in class.

Now as a final touch, I am thinking about the ice-breaker that everyone could use at the beginning of the seminar. Some of them speak English well, while others not that well, but I would like them to speak out for the first 10 minutes or so just to create a good atmosphere. But then again, this is something I find natural, but participants may feel awkward just to do so.

It all amounts to keeping a good balance, which is what I will do tomorrow at the seminar.