We’ve all been there before, from grade school to high school, and sometimes even I’m sad to admit, in college. We question the reason why anyone would want us to learn a certain subject that will most likely never be of use to us after the final exam. The fact that we spend so much time learning and so little on application is, perhaps, one of the greatest problems faced by all education systems around the world. And here in the inaka of Japan, where the majority of my kids will most likely go into their parents’ professions, it can be heartbreaking to come across gifted and talented kids who can’t be bothered to take an interest because they have little perceived use for English after graduating high school.
Though my kids have yet to blatantly ask me the “When will I ever use this?” question, it’s pretty clear from their eyes and ‘tudes that it’s a low priority subject for them. Oh, they humor me. Humor me, they do. But humoring isn’t quite the same as exploring/discovering. Recently a fellow JET colleague gave me the brilliant idea to use the website SendKidstheWorld.com to give my own kids a reason to care about using English and to see their own life in perspective.
Send Kids the World is a great website to connect terminally ill children with people from around the world via postcards. I selected Ashlynn from the many wonderful kids because she was roughly the same age as my junior high students and she had many of the same interests. Basically, when I arrived this morning my kids had no idea what I had in mind for them today. Let’s practice some grammar, she said last week. It’ll be fun, she said… last week.
*Insert victorious-you-shall-now-use-English-for-the-power-of-good-and-you-won’t-be-able-to-pretend-to-be-too-cool-for-school-after-today laugh* Teens around the world, eh?
Start with a warm up to get the brain cells going. Make the rows or columns (depending on your style and mood) play a quick round of Rock-Paper-Scissors-Shoot. The winners will answer the following questions: 1. What is your favorite (insert person/place/thing/hobby) in (insert prefecture or town)? But for the more advanced classes, I used natural speech: What is your favorite thing about your town? I also explained at the end of the warm up the reason why I asked them those particular questions. The grand reveal: dun-dun-dun!
After giving them as simple and brief of a description of Ashlynn’s life as I could, complete with a photograph that I placed on the backboard, I lectured a bit on writing letters and postcards. It helps to give the kids blank white sheets of paper where they can practice what they want to say. Though I did put up a template of what an average postcard may look like, I do advice allowing your kids to run wild. I let them tell Ashlynn whatever they wanted about Aomori and Japan, even if it meant that they just wanted to share about their life at school or home.
A couple of them were naturally skeptical, the didn’t believe that I would really send anything at all and that this was just one long exercise in grammatical theory, blah, blah, blah. And then I whipped out thirty-one post cards and spread them out on the teacher’s desk in the room. That’s when things got real. Post cards cost 150 yen a pop here. Thirty-one of them plus tax came to a round total of 5,022 yen. Or the equivalent of $50.22; trust me it’s worth it.
Suddenly, when they realized that this was happening for real, they were rushing to the blackboard, wanting to find out more about what her likes and dislikes were, about her birthday, and what she looked like. A lot of my kids took it to heart, their beautifully written postcards (which are now safely tucked away in my desk). We’re sending them out next week since only half the class was able to finish.
But for the tender-hearted teacher, beware: there’s always going to be a few who don’t really care one way or another. Best thing is to be patient with them and hope that years down the road they will remember this and look back on it as the one time they used English for a good purpose.
::BASIC POSTCARD TEMPLATE::
Hello (insert name of child), my name is (student’s name). I am from (country/prefecture). (Country) is famous for (insert famous item). (insert free style sentences on whatever kids want to write about). I believe in you!
Sincerely, (student’s name).
Depending on the level of the students’ English you can do any variation to reflect grammar being learned that day/week or to include higher level words. But more importantly, they’re doing a great thing for a kid in need. Emphasize the fact that it’s not about getting the grammar right or the words perfectly spelled. It’s about connecting with another human being, someone whom you may never have connected with before now. Because at the end of the day, that’s what English should be about: it should be about humanity, about meaningful connections, about using what is learned to do a good deed.