Leaving any place feels like a metaphor for death.
As my time comes to an end, with less than two months left to go, the thought of my legacy here weighs heavily. In the middle of any experience, there’s always the thought that “there is more time to improve and do better”. “What next?” is the most important question.
But now, as the number of classes I have left hits the double and single digits, the focus becomes on what effect I had. Like a postmortem, I think less about what is happening, and more on what happened. With, perhaps, the hope that what happened might influence what will happen next. Or, at the very least, that it might influence others who still have time to benefit from what I’ve laid out.
Early Attempts at the Junior High School
I actually came to Japan with a level of cynicism from the start. I’d had experience in elementary school in the states, and I had learned that it wasn’t really for me. I’d also experienced firsthand the English skill of many Japanese people. Seeing someone who could speak English fluently seemed closer to the miracle end of the spectrum (not that second language education in America is radically better). Reading blogs like JapaneseRuleOf7 helped me think of Japan as just another place on Earth instead of the paradise like many think it to be. Not only that, but I was aware my position in the school would be less “teacher” and more “human tape recorder / class clown”. I set the bar pretty low.
In spite of that, I did come here hoping to change something. I saw friends writing simple-English newspapers and setting up mailboxes in the school where students could send letters back and forth. Others set up English boards with a host of information and stories in English. I dabbled with imitation, but ultimately little came from it. My biggest success from that early period was a weekly assignment to write about anything the students wanted and I’d edit it and post the best stories I’d received. Maybe it worked best because it was something I was passionate about. But, honestly, it was probably so successful in my mind because I had little to compare it to.
That tradition died with the English teacher, as he went to a new school, the new English teacher didn’t quite understand my efforts, and I became the staff of the elementary school rather than the junior high school. With that last change, I no longer had my own computer attached to the internet and school printers. And without the convenience of printing at my fingertips, I nearly gave up.
As I wrote that last sentence, a bit of a Freudian slip occurred when I wrote “gave” as “game”. In fact, the one enduring bit of experimental education happened with making a game for my students that first year. A little adventure game walking around the school. I was intent on having my students experience the language in more than the textbook context. A game, one that students could take at their own pace, seemed like a good idea.
Each year, I made a game. In the end, I think this might be my biggest connection with the town. For those students that played those games, that’s how I am most fondly remembered. But forget me. Did it have a lasting impact on their English? That’s harder to say. Did a couple hours doing something different have an impact compared to the hundreds of hours in the classroom? I’m not sure.
I still have a final version of the last game I made for them, Shichikashuku II, that I haven’t given them yet. Hopefully they can enjoy this game in the comfort of their home. Then, perhaps, I’ll have made a real contribution. If they can then branch out and play more games in English, my work will be done.
Successes at the Elementary School
Outside of the game, since switching my base school, I more-or-less focused on the elementary school over the junior high school. This culminated in four major improvements to the English education in the elementary school:
- Enjoy English
- Enjoy English “What’s this?” Wall
- English Library
- Playground English
Enjoy English (EE) was a program that essentially formalized after school English at the elementary school. Ideally something for the junior high school students, EE was a time to show movies, songs, television, and games to students who came. We watched Frozen, Big Hero 6, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Magic Schoolbus, as well as a bunch of smaller things. Though the program started well, it became irregular during certain parts of the year, and didn’t happen during other times. Specifically, I saw it as an alternative to going outside in the rains of fall and spring, or the snows of winter. But, more recently, it’s been made into de facto Minecraft hour. I can’t complain too much, but it has deviated over the years.
The EE “What’s this?” Wall came last year after seeing a presentation about the importance of English and for students to interact with it on their own terms. It’s basically just a poster with a touch pen that, when pressed to the poster, makes sounds. It’s a good way for kids to have fun, but the posters need to be changed up for students to get interested after the initial fun wears off. Changing them every month is a good idea, and one that doesn’t require much maintenance. That said, even though the current poster has been up for almost two months, I just heard a kid play with it! It’s been pretty effective.
The English Library was a small section of English-only books separate from the normal library. My goal with this was similar to the game: if they could bring these books home and have more interaction with English in their daily life, perhaps their English would improve. More exposure to English equals more comfort with English, the thinking goes. But, like the poster, without an influx of new books, it doesn’t get much attention. The last new book was added a year ago and the last time someone took out a book was this January, 5 months ago. Either more new books or more attention needs to be given to the Library if its too be revived.
Finally, the biggest success lies in the Playground English initiative, which was essentially to use more English while playing outside. Compared with America, the kids here spend a lot of time outside. From between 1 hour to 2 hours depending on the day and the time they go home. During this time, there’s a lot of English that can be used, especially since all the activities are simple enough to understand.
- Kids who want a push on the swing shout, “Push me!” When I ask, “How many times?” they can respond with “5 times”, or however many times they want. I’ve even gotten requests for “one hundred times” or “one million times”. I didn’t teach them “one million”. :p
- When kids want a ride on my shoulders, they have learned to say, “Please give me a かたぐるま”. I won’t even comply unless they say the “v” in “give” correctly.
- Sometimes they ask me to come over with “come here” or “come on”. Or, they’ll say “chase me” or “punch Ken” or “kick Aya”. Of course, I have to do it. It might sound violent, but I rarely actually hit them. If I do, it turns into a tickle or something.
- It’s also a great time to practice other things. Like, “What color is this?” And if they get the right answer, I’ll lift them up or something.
All in all, the kids’ ability to use and understand English has definitely improved as a result of these efforts. And, hopefully, these things can outlast me.
Thoughts on the Town
Not about the movie, “The Town”. I haven’t seen that. I mean, about Shichikashuku, the little mountain hamlet with a population of 1500.
I haven’t really thought about my legacy here. I’ve thought about my place here, and how I relate to my neighbors. But, the town is outside my jurisdiction. After all, I was hired in regards to English education, not town building.
Still, I think that my time here has been good. I’ve always promoted this town, in little ways, expressing my love for it to friends and occasionally writing things about it on this blog. Making Shichikashuku II, a game set in the town, I feel as if I have done a little work in preserving this place. Which might sound silly if you’ve played it and fought demons and traveled to floating islands, but I think it captures some of the spirit of the town.
All this feels like a dying man wondering about his place in the world. Did he make a difference? Will his children do fine without him?
It’s not a perfect metaphor. After all, I can still come back. Maybe in 5 years, I’ll see where everyone is at. Parents getting ready for retirement. Former students working in the town hall. Preschoolers now solving multiplication tables. It’ll be fun to see. But will they remember me? Will the English Library still be there? How good will their English have become?
I think about the fact that my contributions are probably small. And yet, it was a billion small changes that put me where I am today. And a billion that put you where you are. And we’re all the result of countless random small contributions by people who wondered what their life was all about.
So, I don’t think I’ll worry about a legacy. After all, a legacy exists, regardless of my worry.