And then there are dreams

Kevin Stein
Kevin Stein
By Kevin Stein

Part of my job as an English teacher at a private high school in Japan is to conduct interview tests for the school entry exam during January and February. The students are in their third year in junior high school. They walk into the room, bow, give a formal greeting in Japanese, and then are directed to a seat. I and the other test proctor sit on the other side of the room. All of the students are dressed in their junior high school uniforms. Many of them have grown over the three years they have used these uniforms. Their pants are too short and white socks stand out against the black pant cuffs. Their jacket sleeves are frayed. Sometimes the collar of their shirt is too tight for them to button the top button. Some of them tap their foot nervously and the sound echoes across the sea of flooring separating us from the student. And the students, hesitantly, in words stitched together with great effort, tell me about their dreams, their reasons for wanting to study English intensively in high school, their past successes and sometimes failures as students.

It is a chance for me to not only to meet and learn about my new students, but also to check my own ideas about just what it means to study English. In my three years conducting these interviews, I have never had a student say that they look forward to the long hard work of learning the 2800 words or so of basic vocabulary that they will need to communicate in English. I have never had a student express an interest in learning how to draft and redraft a piece of writing to develop the skills they will need to eventually produce an academic paper. I have never had a student say that they would like to spend a third of their class time working with language they already know so that they can improve their fluency. What I have come to see as the most important aspects of learning a language are rarely if ever the things that have drawn students to English in the first place.

Last week, a young girl told me the following story. She had visited Korea on a class trip when she was 12 years old and had spent two days attending a junior high school in Seoul. While she was there, she made friends with a Korean student and they talked to each other in the only language they shared, English. She learned about the different types of Korean pickled foods, about the latest K-pop bands, about the different ways to greet older and younger people depending on their social position. She looked at me and said, “I can learn about many countries’ cultures with English. It is exciting. So I want to learn English.” I imagined how many times she must have practiced saying these sentences aloud in her room to be able to say them relatively smoothly in that big empty room during an entry exam.

A few years ago, Penny Ur ran a webinar for iTDi, in which she emphasized that the main job of an English teacher is to teach English. And I too, with one hundred percent conviction, believe the same. At the end of my lesson, I need to be able to look back on the 50 minutes or 90 minutes or 120 minutes of my class and be able to say that I taught English. That my students walked out of class with more developed vocabulary, a better concept of a grammatical structure, an ability to produce certain target language more smoothly and accurately. But lately I’m starting to feel that as I grow and develop the skills to teach what I think needs to be taught, I’ve lost some of my openness to the wonder and almost limitless potential that draws students to study English in the first place. I worry that my interactions with students are more about running down a mental checklist of what I know students need to be doing (are you making word cards? are you reading two graded reading texts a week? are you developing skills to identify chunks of language?) and less an exploration of what students are actually learning for themselves.

Last weekend, a fifteen-year-old girl told me about how English had helped her learn about a country and culture that many people in Japan view with a certain level of rivalry and perhaps even distrust. After the interview, she turned at the door, bowed, and gave a formal parting greeting in Japanese. Just before she walked out of the room, she looked me in the eyes, smiled, and gave me a little wave. I can’t help but feel that my small wave back to her was a kind of promise, a promise that I would help her use English to learn about other countries, to build a bridge she could walk across into a wider world. And perhaps it was a promise to myself as well, a promise that in the upcoming year I would not simply teach what students need to learn, but develop the skills to nurture the larger dreams of all my students. In a world that has grown progressively darker, perhaps it is only the light of these dreams, so bright amongst too short pants and fraying sleeves, which allows my students—all of our students—to walk, step by step, into their own futures.

Published by

Kevin Stein

Kevin's an English teacher working at a small private high school in Osaka, Japan. He's been working as an English teacher for 14 years, all of them in Japan. He's worked with students at the kindergarten, junior high school, high school, and university level in both private and classroom settings. So he has a little bit of experience working with all kinds of students. His area of special interest is stories/literature in the classroom. He thinks it is important to give his students interesting and moving stories to help transport them out of the classroom and explore language in fresh and natural ways. He blogs regularly about what's happening in his classroom or what he's reading and sharing with other teachers. Kevin's Blog:The Other Things Matter Twitter: @kevchanwow

6 thoughts on “And then there are dreams”

  1. I enjoyed your post, Kevin. I think you really captured a feeling many of us have experienced. The reminder of the possibilities that exist when we can tap into our students dreams and use the energy potential to inspire both them and us. I do a lot of story writing for my students and I also bring literature into the classroom and would be interested in sharing ideas with you.

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the comment and the kind words. I’ve read about the stories you’ve written for your students and I’m really happy to make contact with another teacher dedicated to bringing more literature into the language classroom. I would love to have a chance to read some of your work and share it with my students.

      The Japanese Association of Language teachers has a group dedicated to expanding the ways teachers use lit in language classes, the LiLT Special Interest Group. I’m a member and do their web site, so if you have a minute to check it out and let me know what you think, I would really appreciate it. The site has PDFs of all the issues of our journal as well:

      http://liltsig.org

      I look forward to sharing ideas with you in the future.

      Kevin

  2. I love that your students’ dreams aren’t just to pass the next level up test, or to get into their first choice school. Sometimes our job is to help students learn to dream bigger dreams than they start out with.

    Developing a clearer sense of what students need in order to become more fluent, develop accuracy, and to strengthen as language users is part of our own growth as teachers. I got my MATESOL in the end days of natural approach, and was paranoid about “making” my students repeat language too often — repetition didn’t feel very communicative. I noticed that the longer I taught, the more comfortable I became “allowing” my students to repeat language enough to become comfortable using it in different contexts.

    I think we all become more comfortable in our teacher skins as we gain experience, and more confident in knowing what needs to happen in order to get our students from point A to B in learning.

    Keeping that sense of wonder alive is a challenge, trying to ensure that experienced doesn’t become jaded. Maybe as long as we are aware of the risk, we can avoid it? I hope so.

    1. Hi Barbara,

      I’m lucky to work in a program where scoring highly on standardized tests is seen as the natural result of improving the core aspects of their language skills (vocabulary, reading and speaking fluency, listening). So not many of the students view passing a test as a long term language goal. That being said, I actually run the testing skills portion of our school’s program, but for the most part I’m teaching autonomous study skills, not any specific materials to pass a particular test. (I have a first post on what I do in my test skills classes here:

      https://theotherthingsmatter.wordpress.com/2016/05/04/standardised-tests-are-shite-but-might-also-have-their-uses/ ).

      And while I like to think my classes are important, I also realize it is the other teachers, the ones facilitating cross cultural lessons on environmental issues with students in New Zealand, or having the students write and share personal essays, which are helping to keep the language real and living for students.

      I’m kind of surprised, and heartened, that you mentioned repetition and fluency in your comment. It’s the aspect of language learning that I’ve realized I overlooked in my own teaching for too long. Over the past year or so, I try to make sure that every lesson has a fluency component and that students are really pressed to be able to use the language they are working with smoothly and accurately. But once again, I’m struggling to make sure it’s not just work I have the students do because I’m just absolutely sure they need to do it.

      I would be thrilled to hear any ideas teachers have for activities or lessons which link fluency and repetitive practice up with the larger goals and dreams of our students.

      Thanks again for much to think about,

      Kevin

    1. Hello Mr. Kane,

      Right on! Our course material also needs to help feed our students’ larger dreams. Moving stories, real voices of real people in different countries, opportunities to connect with other learners about what they are reading and listening to in their classes…all of these should be a part of coursebooks. I know it’s not easy, but I think it would help students see how their dreams, what they learn, and how they learn can all work together to make them better English users.

      Kevin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *