About half a year ago, Mario Rinvolucri was a guest
participant on one of the ChinaTEFLTeach discussion yahoo groups
which I am a member of. The discussion with him was quite
boisterous, and his irreverent questions sparked some
funny responses from group members, even a reprimand
from the moderator, who insisted that Rinvolucri stay
on the topic of teaching and not stray into culture. I
enjoyed the exchanges with the famous Rinvolucri, author
of those game books for ESL and founder of the Humanising
Language Teaching newsletter (www.hltmag.co.uk). I want to thank
Mario Rinvolucri and Hania Kryszewska (editor of HLT) for
inspiring me to write the following article about something
I experienced in Japan many years ago. I appreciate their
The year was 1988. My family and I were excited about the upcoming move to Nakajo, Japan, where I was going to be part of the start-up team at what would turn out to be a 17-year run for Southern Illinois University-Carbondale's Niigata branch campus project--the longest lasting of any of the 50+ American branch campuses in Japan, except for the renowned Temple University-Tokyo.
I had some ideas for things I wanted to try with Japanese students. I didn't really know what to expect, but I had received some advice from a Chinese student in Kansas, who had warned me "not to blame" young people in Japan if they were quiet or hesitant to participate in class. That is how they are trained in school, this person suggested to me. "You need to teach them how to participate."
Nakajo is a wonderful little fishing village about
30 minutes by bicycle from the coast of the Sea of
Japan, in Niigata prefecture. I made some interesting
mistakes as a newcomer. For example, when I was invited
to the home of my landlord's family for dinner one evening,
they offered me a bath as soon as I walked in the door.
"No thanks," I said. "I took one earlier today."
On several future occasions when invited to people's
homes, I was wise enough to accept the offer of a bath,
and found that the experience of eating a delicious
meal of Japanese food is enhanced further by sitting
for 15 or 20 minutes in near boiling water in a
deep tub. Cold Japanese beer is also a taste delight
following one of these hot baths.
There was a little garden off to the side, out a sliding
door, next to the house that was rented to my family
that year in Nakajo. One of the first vocabulary words
I learned was "bonsai tree," as there were several
in that place. I loved that garden and the way in
which different seasons brought out unique aspects:
my favorite was the way the garden looked after a
new snowfall in the wintertime.
But it was the month of May when I arrived, and
within several days I was standing in front of
new students at the temporary mobile units we were
using for classrooms that first year at SIUC-Niigata.
One of my classes was beginning level reading, and
I do mean "beginning" level. My students were not
familiar with the sounds of English, and I was guessing
that their experience with written English was limited,
too, and that their high school English lessons must
have been conducted in a grammar-translation format.
The textbook for the reading class was the original
"True Stories," and I thought the students needed
some additional reading activities to help them
transition into this text. I had brought a number
of books with me to Japan, and two in particular
were helpful during those first days, weeks, and
months in Nakajo: "Developing Reading Skills: A
Practical Guide to Reading Comprehension Exercises,"
by Francoise Grellet (Cambridge University Press, 1981)
and "Relevance: Communication and Cognition," by
Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson (Harvard University Press,
Grellet suggests that reading consists primarily
of making hypotheses regarding what a text is about,
and then reading a ways into the text in order to
check your hypotheses, and refine them. "What one brings to the text is often more important
than what one finds in it," she writes. "This is why...the
students should be taught to use what they know to understand
unknown elements, whether these are ideas or simple words."
Grellet also says that it makes sense to categorize
exercises, or activities, by levels of difficulty, because
it is not the text, but what is to be done with it,
that can be accurately described as easy or difficult.
The Sperber and Wilson book is interesting in that
it works out many of the factors involved in determining
what constitutes a relevant next statement or sentence
in communication. Their work expands on the relevance
principle in H.P. Grice's landmark "Logic and Conversation"
(1975), and Grice, in turn, derives from Searle, who
learned from Austin, who is a direct intellectual
descendant of Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose earthshaking
proposal was that meanings of words primarily consist in
their contexts, or the others words around them.
I wanted my beginning students to experience what
Grellet refers to as "global understanding" right from
the start, on day one, by supporting their understanding
with familiar items from the local setting we were in.
I began the first day by presenting a short introduction
to a story. I think the first story I gave them lasted
just three or four days, and was a simplified version
of Kafka's "Metamorphosis." But I was quickly learning
about the Nakajo environment, and switched next to a
new, completely original storyline, called "The Magic
Bonsai Tree," in which I introduced a main character
named Hitachi and a vague legend about a giant bonsai
tree in the Nakajo cemetery. Clearly, I did not
understand that bonsai are manicured to be miniatures,
but the local landmarks did seem to catch the attention
of the students.
Every day, as Hitachi walked to SIU-C at Nakajo with his classmates, they talked about a gigantic bonsai tree in the cemetery near their path. None of them had ever seen the tree up close, but they knew that it was supposed to be magic. The people of Nakajo said that if you ate the leaves of this magic tree the river monsters would creep into your home at night and raid your refrigerator. Hitachi proudly boasted to his friends, "That story does not scare me."
By this time, I had established a routine which took
us about 15 or 20 minutes each class period, as I
introduced the next installment of the story and
led students through a series of exercises focused
on the meaning of that day's episode.
First, students would see up on the board the full text
of the previous day's episode, which they had only listened
to the day before. We would go over this, and I would
help them by acting out any vocabulary words they wanted
to focus on.
Second, I would read aloud to them the new
episode, and ask the students, on a sheet of paper,
to draw a picture based on what they had just heard.
I gave students several minutes to do this and,
as the days went by, I encouraged them to feel
very free to be creative, imaginative, and not
necessarily bound by any details of what they
had heard in the first listening to the new episode.
Third, I would read the new episode aloud again,
and the students were supposed to write two or
three questions about what they had just heard.
As days and weeks went by, I would often remind
students that asking a question is the beginning
Fourth, I would read the episode aloud a third
and final time, and students were then given
four or five minutes to write their own original
ideas for what would happen next in the story.
This final step gets at Grellet's suggestion that
reading comprehension is primarily a series of
guesses about what is coming next.
I took these papers up, and here is how I would
respond before handing them back at the start of
the next day's class. First, I always wrote positive
comments below or next to their drawings, specifying
parts that I could identify and, if I had no idea
what the drawing represented, I still wrote something
positive about the effort.
I very carefully corrected their questions
for grammar and word choice, because I thought
it was important to give them special feedback
to help them formulate questions appropriately,
these being such potentially useful tools in the learning
and language learning experience.
I commented with specificity and encouragement
on any ideas students gave for what would happen
next in the story, and I tried to incorporate as
many of their ideas as possible as I created the
new episode each day.
The "Magic Bonsai Tree" story took some surprising
twists and turns, especially after a fellow teacher,
Daniel Castelaz (today an art teacher at Taipei
American School), became interested and started
introducing his students to the same storyline.
Eventually Dan and I, and our students, had created
two separate endings, and, for a gran
finale, he visited my class and I, his, to share
the alternate versions.
I did this activity several times again at the
SIUC-Niigata program, and shared some of the stories
at a presentation I made at Niigata JALT in January of
1989. With more advanced students, I presented
Edgar Allan Poe stories, "The Tell Tale Heart" and
"The Cask of Amontillado," in episodic fashion,
with similar daily activities. I also
used these activities in a listening laboratory
class at SIUC-Niigata.
The Japanese have their own "Edgar Allan Poe,"
whose original Western name was Lafcadio Hearn.
This writer fell in love with Japan's culture
and traditions, and lived most of his adult life
there. In his stories, and in some English retellings
of traditional Japanese tales, spirits are treated
as ordinary elements of everyday life. I was very
lucky to hit upon the idea of magic and mystery
in developing that first story of mine in Nakajo.
I believe the existence of these elements in
Japanese traditions made the content of my stories
more accessible despite new vocabulary and syntax.
I am always heartened by reports from ESL/EFL
teachers of ways in which they have tapped the
power of stories and literature as vehicles for
language learning. And it is exciting for me whenever
I find new stories or, better yet, plays, to use
in teaching English.
Just recently, I picked up a little book, "Stranger
in Town: A Play for Students of English," by Lou
Spaventa (Pro Lingua Associates, 1992) and the
accompanying CD, on which some individuals with
fine voices act out a play about a guy named Bob
Pellegrino and his experiences as a newcomer in
a small town. I found this at the Pro Lingua
booth at TESOL 2007 in Seattle, and, as usual
with their materials, it is wonderfully authentic
and relevant communication. My high beginning/low
intermediate students in a vocabulary class really
made big strides in their confidence, motivation,
and listening and reading ability in the process
of doing activities built around this text and
the CD. It was fun and they could relate to
the main character's difficulties (and joys)
in getting used to living in a new place.
If you haven't ever read through a story,
play, or novel with a group of English language
learners, you are in for a real treat when you
do so. The developing storyline establishes
an expanding context to support meaning as
you and your students get further and further
into the shared experience. Inevitably, ideas
will occur to you for news items, Web links,
songs, and images to bring in for the purpose
of accentuating the story's effect and impact.
In one scene early in the Lou Spaventa play,
a song similar to "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies
Grow Up to Be Cowboys" is on the jukebox in
a cafeteria where the main character, Bob,
is eating breakfast. I brought in the words
to the song and we listened to a version by
Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. This led
to further exploration of country music, and
accidentally dovetailed with a music unit
the students were studying at the same time
in a reading class with another teacher.
Those kinds of surprises seem to happen
more often when a teacher is taking students
experientially together through a story or
play. When such connections occur, there
is an intellectual thrill involved which
leaves a lasting impression.
You'll see one of your students weeks or
months later, and smile together as you
remember these magical coincidences.
By Robb Scott
Editor, ESL MiniConference Online
2007 ESL MiniConference Online (Jointly with HLT)
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