When Will I Ever Use English? (Lesson Plan Included)

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.

Cheers.

English Speech Competition + Creamy Zucchini Soup Recipe

So I bought this gigantic zucchini and it had been sitting in my fridge for almost three days. I’m not going to deny… that zucchini was an impulse purchase. I’m still not used to seeing veg for so cheap O.O Need to stop hording all the vegetables like I did back in Tokyo. As soon as something went on sale I would stock up because I knew that I would not be seeing that price for weeks or months or maybe never to come again. This is the true, sad story of being a broke student in a foreign country… a tale that is not being repeated this time around because thankfully, I (legally) have a job.

Yes, that job mostly mainly consists of teaching proper pronunciation to a student population that may never in their lives need to use it again after high school and I only visit each school once a week (different school Monday through Friday, but only because we’re short staffed). But that doesn’t make me any less of a teacher! My boss admitted that even though he had been studying English diligently since middle school (English language is now just barely becoming compulsory in fifth and sixth grade of elementary school) and continued well into college: he can’t speak a word of it. Which in one part a) it’s his shy nature to admit that he can’t when the opposite is quite true… because… he can get the basic idea across. That’s more than most speakers of a foreign language can do. And for the most part he’s spot on in understanding what I’m saying. Plus b) all he’s lacking is the practical application of the language and not much more as his theory of it is pretty much down pat at this point.

And that’s the crux of the problem: Japanese people are such shy, hard workers that they freeze up at the opportunity to speak English because they don’t want to let anyone down. It’s such a strange dichotomy: on one hand they study really hard to gain the basic theoretics only to stop themselves from gaining full potential because they don’t want to stand out or because they’re quite afraid of failing.

At the moment, none of the kids are in school so my job is to coach the ones who will be participating in the English speech competition. It’s utter madness in a nutshell. The kids are expected to write at a certain level but with language education only just becoming cumpulsory at the lower levels… word on the street is: JETs write the essay and the kids memorize/recite it in their best English (ahem, Rokunohe and Shingo *cough cough*). Not so for Gonohe! We flat out refuse to write any essays for our kids: they do all the work while our main function remains to polish their existing skills. For a JET, this pretty much entails the reading of essays, grammar correction, and creating CDs with the lovely voice of yours truly reading said essays at native speed (to be fair I include two file versions: medium and native speed). I also work with the kids directly, which is a bit trickier because it’s a combination of coach, tutor, teacher, best friend, and personal cheerleader.

So far, though, and mind you I perfectly understand this is perhaps too early to say but I’ll say it anyway: so far… I like this job! Some might say it’s not challenging enough but for my skill level right now it’s 丁度いい or choudoii (otherwise in English: just right) 😀

As I was saying: in comparison to the previous time when I didn’t (legally) have a job, I’ll be making bank. Not to say it’s bank according to my age and educational level, but it’s bank for someone who used to be a secretary at $8/hour. And so going to the supermarket this far up North, where the majority of the produce is grown, I sometimes forget that although a veg might be on sale even the non-sale price is more affordable than Tokyo.

And now we come full circle to the dilemma of the giant zucchini that cost me under a dollar and of which half is still in my fridge. After scouring my spice rack, I came across French Tarragon, which according to my sources goes well with veg. Giant zucchini in fridge and a bag of potatoes waiting to be used, an onion, more garlic than I could use in a month, and salt and pepper… the recipe began forming in my mind. After a few Google searches to make sure I had some approximate measurements for one, I combined two that I liked best and included my own intuitive hand at the spices. I’ve got enough leftovers for another couple of nights so I’d say that this following recipe can serve at least four people and three at the very least.

CREAMY ZUCCHINI RECIPE

INGREDIENTS

1 large zucchini (or 3-4 small to medium-sized ones), chopped

4 small/medium potatoes, peeled and chopped

½ medium white onion, chopped

1 fresh garlic clove, chopped

4 cups of chicken or vegetable stock brought to a boil

½ cup of cream

Oil for frying

1-1½ tsp dried French tarragon

Salt and pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS

1. I like to use the same pot where the soup is going to boil instead of dirtying a frying pan for this step but ultimately the choice is up to you: pour olive or vegetable oil (I used Sarada Oil – in Japan Sarada or Salad Oil is a mixture between canola oil and sesame oil – because that is all I had left but if it were up to me… olive oil would give this soup a great taste). Heat the onion and garlic for a few seconds before adding zucchini and potatoes. Fry for about five minutes or until just softened, add 1 teaspoon of tarragon to season. You do not want to cook the veggies through! Make sure they do not brown.

2. Once done heating the vegetables, turn off the stove and begin boiling water for your stock. Add in your stock and bring to a nice simmer. At this point you’ll want to add the other half teaspoon of dried tarragon to give your stock added flavor but this is optional. I actually love tarragon and found that seasoning both vegetables and stock to be beneficial towards the flavor I was pursuing. Don’t go above a teaspoon and a half for this recipe, though. Tarragon in excess can overpower with its flavor instead of enhancing the dish. Once brought to a boil, turn off the stove and wait a couple minutes before pouring into pot with vegetables and cover.

3. Bring vegetables and broth to a boil of about two minutes. Lower to a simmer for the next twenty minutes. You might have to blend in batches so be prepared with Tupperware or bowls for this next step: a) you can blend with a hand processor or b) you can use a blender. I only had a blender handy so I blended mine in three batches and used Tupperware to contain the already blended contents until thick and creamy before moving on to the next batch. That same Tupperware is holding the leftovers of my soup so it’s not like I was dirtying unnecessary kitchenware 😀

4. Once soup is well blended, return to pot and turn up the heat to medium. At this stage you will add the cream as well as salt and pepper for taste, checking occasionally to make sure that mix well and that you don’t over or under do it.

5. Can be served hot or cold! Bon appetite!