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Summer Solstice 夏至

So yesterday was the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the longest day of the year and a clear sign that it is finaly summer.  Somehow, it doesn't quite feel like summer to me though, since Japanese students still have almost 1 more month of school left before the start of summer vacation, which only lasts a paltry 6 weeks!  I only have about a month left to go in Japan.  I can feel the clock ticking towards the end of an era.  Also, to constantly remind me that it's summer (but not really summer).  Teachers in the staffroom keep screaming "Achii! Achii!!"  That's Oita Dialect for "暑い"(atsui – hot).  They like to scream "samui! samui!"  (It's cold! It's cold!) in the wintertime too.  Hmm, I didn't notice it was hot, thanks for sharing.  Does complaining about the heat really make it any less hot?  I mean, the windows are already cracked open and the electric fans are on.  Unfortunately there is no airconditioning in the staffroom of this particular school, but come on.  It's only 23 degrees Celsius (73 degrees Fahrenheit) and this is hot!?  There are even teachers wiping off their sweat with towels! Maybe it's because I grew up in Arizona, but this hardly counts as summer heat to me.  I'm looking forward to some bone dry 40 degree Celcius plus temperature (over 105 F) when I go home to Arizona at the end of July and quick dips in the swimming pool – now that is REAL summer.  

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Student Teacher Demonstration Lesson

Yesterday, we had a student teacher, a university student in Education from a nearby university who is doing a week-long practicum at one of my junior high schools, teach a demonstration lesson to the first grade class (7th graders in the US). Other teachers from the school, including myself, sat in on the lesson and took notes. After school we all had a meeting with the student teacher to discuss her performance and to give our suggestions and comments.

It is funny how 3 years into the JET Programme and 6 weeks from going home, I have my first truly consultative role as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) and native speaker of English. Of course, I have had carte blanche when it comes to my elementary school lessons or my adult conversation class, but when comes to teaching at junior high school, most of the time I just go along with a lesson that the Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) has prepared or I am given my own block of time to present a culture lesson or to play games that reinforce language acquisition. I have been to quite a few Prefectural and Regional meetings between ALTs and JTEs, but because of the general nature of these meetings and the fact that they bring together teachers from very different school environments. Many of the lesson plans presented at these meetings are done "for show" to make teachers look good in front of their colleagues, but are too ambitious to carry out on a day to day basis at school or way too difficult for mixed-level English classes which is the norm in Japanese public (state) junior high schools where tracking students by ability is strictly forbidden.

Anyway, let's get back to the demonstration lesson given by the student teacher. I was asked to stay for a bit after school (something that has also never happened before) and we had a conference in the principal's office. The non-English teachers and the school principal had lots of comments for the student teacher about classroom management and the flow of the lesson, etc. I then gave her some tips about pronunciation and some minor points about usage and grammar. I also criticized the use of katakana (one of the Japanese phonetic syllabaries used to transcribe foreign words and which function like italics in Roman script) as an imperfect method of describing English pronunciation. Surprisingly, the principal and the English teacher agreed with me. They also believed that proper pronunciation should be taught, through the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), diagrams of tongue position and articulation of sounds that don't exist in Japanese such as the English "th" sound or the difference between "L" and "R", and/or through repeated oral practice and listening to ALTs or native speaker recordings. They also admitted that perhaps the use of katakana was a crutch used by lazy teachers, teachers who couldn't pronounce English properly themselves, or simply a way of placating students who did not feel at ease learning a "strange" pronunciation. Wow! I was surprised that they admitted all of this. They also said that according to official guidelines, the use of katakana should be avoided. But nevertheless, I see it used all the time, and we will see if it actually gets banished from English language classrooms. Katakana is the bane of every native English language teacher in Japan. It is responsible for the characteristic "Japanglish" accent of substituting "Z" for "TH", mixing up "L" and "R" and the addition of extraneous vowels at the end of words.

In terms of personal growth, I feel like I have come a long way. It felt pretty good being able to follow a staff meeting in Japanese and to give my comments and suggestions about teaching English to a Japanese teacher IN JAPANESE. I certainly feel that my Japanese language ability has come a long way in my 3 years here. I also feel a little bit disappointed that I did not have that many opportunities to discuss and consult with Japanese teachers about their teaching methods and their own English abilities. I am sure that the JET Programme has had a positive impact on Japanese students, especially in rural areas, in familiarizing them with foreigners (still a rare sight outside of major cities), as well as giving them access to native speakers as models for pronunciation and as conversation partners. However, if real English language reform is going to happen, ALTs should be helping the JTEs to improve their English and their pedagogical methods, since ALTs come and go every few years, but most JTEs will be teaching at their school district for their whole careers.

Perhaps it is because I have been here for 3 years and that they are used to working with me now that they invited me to the "backstage" of peer evaluation and discussiong of methodology. I certainly have more to add and to comment on after 3 years teaching here than I did straight out of university with only a few weeks of informal teaching experience before coming to Japan. This meeting also happened at the smallest of my three schools where there is a closer, warmer, more relaxed work atmosphere than the 2 larger schools. But maybe it is also the hierarchical nature of Japanese society that prevents JETs from having more of a say in how English is taught. In this case, I was advising a student teacher who is younger than me and less experienced, so I would be considered her senior. However, I think there may still be resistance on the part of older, full-time Japanese teachers of English to view the ALT as their equal. I think this is too bad, because as native speakers, we could certainly help the JTEs improve their English ability so they can pass it on to students. Another reason is that Japanese teachers in general work really long hours and are responsable for way more than just teaching their subjects and evaluating students. Their roles often include coaching or directing after-school club activities and the "upbringing" of students, a role that would be considered parental domain in the U.S. For example, many schools enforce curfews on their students even during holiday periods, so students can't be at the video arcade, for example after a certain time. Or they forbid students from buying snacks and drinks at convenience stores on their way to and from school. So Japanese teachers often play the role of social workers and surrogate parents, adding to their workload and stress levels, leaving little time to discuss English language pedagogy with bright-eyed, idealistic ALTs with far more freedom and free time than their Japanese counterparts.

Finally, I want to talk about a question posed by the principle to the student teacher during the meeting that I found very interesting. He asked her, "Why do you think students should study English at school? You have to know the answer yourself so you can convince the students that English is a worthwhile subject and motivate them to study it."  The student teacher thought about it for a bit and replied, "Well, I think that learning English is a practical skill for Japanese kids because there is English all around us, even in Japan, on signs, posters, product labels, etc."  This is true, I never thought of it that way, there is a whole lot of "decorative" English in Japan, but plenty of people ignore it or can't read it anyway, all the content that matters is written in Japanese anyway.  But I am sure that many students make the effort to study English just because it is required by the government and because it is part of entrance exams to high school and university.  However, the things that are taught in schools are not and should not be limited to subjects with immediate, practical utility, or otherwise schools would just focus on the the basics of "readin', writin' and 'rithmetic." 

Language learning has intrinsic value in itself.  Language is the window into other cultures and other ways of looking at the world.  The study of a foreign language also helps us to better understand our native tongues and to better understand the concept of language itself, as an abstract system of signs and symbols.  It helps us to improve our ability for abstract thinking and cognition.  Can you think of any more?  

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VISCA CATALUNYA LLIURE! VIVA CATALUÑA LIBRE! VIVE LA CATALOGNE LIBRE!

The people of Catalonia have voted 'yes' by a margin of 74% to the Statute of Autonomy. Catalonia is a region (or what some consider a "nation without a state") located in the northeastern part of Spain, which includes the vibrant city of Barcelona. The traditional "Catalan Countries" (Paisos Catalans) also includes Valencia, the Balearic Islands, and Northern Catalonia across the Pyrenees, which is now under French jurisdiction.

I had the honor of spending an academic year (2000-2001) studying at the University of Barcelona and have been following the progress of the Catalan people towards greater self-determination ever since.
The Catalans have their own language and culture that is quite distinct from the Castillian (AKA "Spanish") language and culture of central and southern Spain. The Catalonia have historical claims to an independent state dating back to the Middle Ages but eventually, there country was carved up and swallowed up by Spain and France. Also in more recent history, the Catalan language and culture were suppressed during the Franco dictatorship in Spain.

Despite the large margin voting in favor of the Statute of Autonomy, there was also a rather worrying rate of abstention. Slightly less than 50% of registered voters voted in the referendum. Both Spanish nationalists, who believe in maintaining the centralized, unified nature of the Spanish state, and Catalan nationalists, who want nothing less than full independence opposed the Statute. However, the statute was supported by Zapatero's Socialist government in Madrid which is also pursuing talks with Basque nationalists. In concrete terms, the new Statute would give Catalonia's government more tax revenues from the central government in Madrid as well as more say in areas such as the management of immigration, airports and language and culture.

While some may argue that "autonomy" just means an added layer of bureaucratic red-tape, I would still have to say that autonomy is a step in the right direction, with full independence through a democratic process being the most desirable end result in the long term. After all, in the last few weeks, we have seen Montenegro and Serbia become independent countries through peaceful, democratic means, putting the final nail in the coffin of the former Yugoslavia. I think the increasing number of independent, sovereign states in the world is good for democracy and good for the protection of cultural and linguistic diversity. We have other historical examples of peaceful and democratic separations of nation-states, such as the Velvet Divorce of Slovakia and the Czech Republic as well as the independence of Norway from Sweden.

It is interesting to note that while there has been a greater trend towards "national" and regional sovereignty and autonomy, there is also the parallel trend of international integration – such as the European Union. These trends work very well in tandem, even if they sound contradictory at first. The basis of international, interstatal organizations is that of national sovereignty. All parties come to the table as sovereign states. So the Catalan people, should have the right to negotiate in the context of the European Union as a sovereign state, equal in standing to Spain or France or any other E.U. member state. Only then can the system be truly democratic and ensure the protection of cultural diversity in a globalizing world.

Economically, an independent Catalan state is viable.  Along with the the Basque Country, it is one of the most economically developed regions in Spain.  On the socio-cultural level, even though Catalan is considered a "minority language," in absolute numbers, it has more speakers than European "national" languages such as Danish, Norwegian or Finnish. 

Radio-Canada has also recently done a report on Catalonia, comparing the situation there with that of Québec.  Both are regions with minority cultures and languages with nationalist aspirations.  Both have embarked on projects of linguistic and cultural revitalization as a way of countering years of colonialism, assimilation, and neglect.  Catalan leaders interviewed in the report openly admited that Québec served as a model for Catalonia in terms of linguistic and cultural policy.

In a broader context, we can apply the example of Catalonia to other regions/nations without a state.  Certainly, China can learn a lesson or two.  China is still working under outdated, imperialist notions of the Chinese "nation" when it comes to its policies towards Xinjiang (East Turkestan), Tibet, and Taiwan (even though Taiwan is already de facto independent since 1949).  Obviously, China is growing very quickly on an economic level, and it seeks to maintain its territorial integrity as a way of maintaining law and order as well as to ensure its access to natural resources.  However, a "smarter" way to progress would be to allow for state-to-state relations on the political level while maintaining increasingly integrated economic ties.  So in the case of Taiwan – let us be our own country, but let's work together economically.  Otherwise, Chinese policies amount to nothing less than imperialism, no better than the Japanese imperialism of the first half of the 20th century that the Chinese government is so quick to point out and attack Japan for.

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African Safari

Luke, Tash and I went to African Safari in Beppu today.  African Safari is a wildlife park located in the mountains between Ajimu and Beppu city that has lots of open space that recreates the natural habitats of various animals from Africa as well as Asia, Australia, and the Americas.  You can drive your own car through the animal reserve and get very close to the animals.  Check out my photos!

elephant.jpg
kangaroo.jpg
lion.jpgllamas.jpgmonkey.jpgtigers.jpg

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Postcard from Mongolia

Today I received a postcard from Mongolia from my ex-roommate Kenyon.  He said that the Japanese presence is big there and also that he has heard rumors of "perfect fruit" that can cost up to 100 dollars US.

Well the "perfect fruit" stories are true.  I have seen 100 dollar melons in the supermarket and at special fruit stores.  In the "midrange" there are 25 dollar mangos as well.  Even giant apples that cost 5 dollars each.  Somehow, living in Japan for 3 years has made me immune to the high cost of fruit, although I still haven't tried the 100 dollar melon yet.  I don't like melons anyway.  But the 5 dollar pineapples aren't too bad.

More on the Japan-Mongolian connection:  I have heard that there are quite a few Mongolians in Japanese sumo wrestling and that sumo itself is derived from Mongolian wrestling, but that is just hearsay – I am no expert on sumo.  I guess I just don't find the idea of fat men wrestling in diapers all that interesting.

Also in Japan, there is a hearty dish called "Jinggis Khan" – (AKA "Genghis Khan" in English ) that consists of lamb and vegetables cooked on a hotplate with a garlicky soy-based sauce.  Pretty good eats.  Do they have anything like that in Mongolia?  I also tried some fermented mares milk once from Inner Mongolia, which is the part of the Mongol homeland that is part of China.  It kind of tasted like the super alcoholic Calpis/Calpico, that weird sweetened whey/yoghurt Japanese soft drink.