Across cultures through passion for music and dance

Naoko Amano
Naoko Amano
By Naoko Amano

Do you know about the Young Americans?

About 8 years ago, I found an interesting blog. The author was writing about an event her daughter joined every year – singing and dancing with about 200 kids and about 40 young people from America. From her posts, I understood that the workshops were very exciting and everyone enjoyed the time very much. That is how I learnt about the Young Americans. It is a “charitable organization dedicated to the promotion of understanding and goodwill among people throughout the world through the world music, dance, performance, academic  education, and the cultural interaction among students members and their audience” (you can find out more on their website).

As I read more about their work, I realized that they have several international music outreach programs and that is what anyone can join in Japan. I read more blog posts and articles about the Young Americans and I wanted to let my daughters have this experience.

Two years later, the time finally come. My daughters were 6 and 8 years old then. They didn’t have any idea about who the Young Americans were and what they did, and to be honest, I didn’t know well either. I just wanted my daughters to enjoy the two-day singing and dancing workshop in a foreign language environment. I cannot forget the way they were staring at me with their distraught eyes when they entered the hall for the first time. We said goodbye at 9 a.m. and then I picked them up at 7 p.m. It was a long day, but when I saw their bright shining eyes, I knew it went more than well. They were so excited and could hardly wait until the next day! The next day was the final day when the kids performed what they’d learnt for their families and friends. Imagine 200 children on the stage, dancing with all their effort, confidently, with a proud look on their faces. It was truly beautiful. I was moved to tears! It was hard to believe that they made their show in just two days, but it was true, and my daughters looked so happy. Since then, they have joined the workshop every year.

The big part of the workshop’s success, to my mind, is the way these young people, professionals at what they are doing, offer support and kind words to any child. Once I had an opportunity to see that for myself. Parents are welcome to observe the classes. I was curious about what’s going on during the workshop and wanted to know how they can bring out the hidden talent and so much positive energy in the kids. So this year I took a dance lesson and a performance lesson together with my girls. I saw for myself that at that workshop that the Young Americans provide the comfortable space where participants don’t have to be worried about other people or be nervous. They keep encouraging, pushing children by saying “You can do it!” – and when the kids brave up and do it, their young dancing coaches find just the right words of praise that seem to be coming from their hearts. So even among foreigners and at such vulnerable moments, the children feel safe and comfortable and happily try even harder!

Another interesting point about this experience is hosting the performers. The cast of the Young Americans stay at students’ houses for the duration of the workshops. According to them, they stay with about 40 different families during a four-month tour! My family has offered homestay four times and we see it as a great opportunity to communicate with the members of the team in a more relaxed and informal setting, as well as share about our cultures. At first, we were all very nervous, both kids and adults in my family – it was a new experience for us and we all had to find ways to communicate with each other. However, my daughters and the Americans we hosted became good friends really quickly. We talked about music and dancing, family and travelling, Japan and the USA. The so-called “culture exchange” happened spontaneously and very naturally. For example, my teenage daughter taught American twenty-year-olds how to play kendo (a type of Japanese martial arts) and cooked Japanese food for all of us; the boys we hosted taught my daughter how to play the guitar and how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was difficult to explain many things in English, but my kids tried to do that using a mobile dictionary application. Even though it is always a very short time that we get to spend together, every time we learn some English that we cannot find in a textbook. For example, in school my kids were taught to say “You’re welcome” in response to a “Thank you,” but some of the young Americans we hosted said “Of course!” which was new for all of us. Another unusual example was that one girl kept calling my daughter “sis”! It is really interesting to learn daily expressions outside of the textbook. This simple communicative English is important and not so easy to find in a regular English class in Japan, so we appreciated the opportunity.

There are a few lessons I’ve learnt with this experience – most importantly, how open communication and kindness can affect or children. I value the time I spend with my kids as a parent, and I value each lesson I spend with my students as a teacher. I encourage my daughters with much love to help them have positive self-esteem. I keep encouraging my students from the bottom of my heart and tell them why I think it is important. By praising them a lot, I show respect and I hope that this will make them feel safe and be proud of themselves. I hope that my children and my students will learn to respect all people whatever culture they come from and enjoy our differences.

Why do I teach? What do I want to do as a teacher?

Naoko Amanoby Naoko Amano

Why do I teach English to young learners?

What do I want to do as a teacher of English?

These were the questions that I asked myself this year, but let’s start at the beginning.

I teach English to young learners in my own private school called Yellow Banana in Kishiwada, Osaka. Back in January 2015 I also had a branch school in Izumisano, a town in Osaka Prefecture. I took over classes from my friend as she had moved to Tokyo but didn’t want to dismiss the groups. I had 15 students in Izumisano school and taught them every Tuesday. For our classes, I rented a room in the basement floor of the big city hall. It was a bleak space for learning – no windows, grey walls, no Internet connection. As you might imagine, it was not good enough for teaching, especially for teaching little kids! Every Tuesday I carried boxes full of decorations, colourful posters, and toys to make our room look brighter. After classes finished, I had to take it all down as the city hall required to leave the room empty and clean.

No wonder I wanted to offer a better environment for learning English to all of my students, so I asked the parents if the kids could come to the main Yellow Banana school in Kishiwada. I explained clearly why I thought it was necessary and a better option. However, they could not accept my offer and all those 15 students quit my classes.

I have to confess, I was shocked. I simply was not ready for this answer. As any teacher probably would, I had expected them to want to stick with me, no matter where the classes would be held. The students might have wanted that, too, but they could not. The parents explained that it is too far for the kids to go by themselves, and that is the main reason for them to leave. I realized that there was nothing I could do about it. Yet at the same time, I felt so guilty about taking away the place where the kids were enjoying learning English. Losing students was the biggest thing for me and gave me a reason to think about teaching.

Why do I teach English to young learners? What do I want to do as a teacher of English?

I know that for me teaching English is fun. Using English myself and seeing the students use English is fun, too. I keep looking for new ways to teach English in a fun way… But something was just not right. At that time, I received an offer to write a blog post for iTDi. I was really scared and insecure. After all, I’m just a teacher at a small school, how can I have anything interesting to say?! However, I got warm comments on that post, which gave me the courage and confidence I needed so much.

It was then when I stopped counting what I’d lost and looked at what I had. I realized that there were teachers around who might feel the same way. I had support, many good friends, my family. I was not alone. After feeling down and depressed, I finally regained my energy and confidence and started getting ready for the new school year.

Nine months later, Yellow Banana is still a small English school for kids. My family allowed me to use one of the rooms in our apartment as a “classroom”. I decorated the walls in that classroom with posters, flashcards, and toys. There are shelves with the books I can use, as well as the Internet connection that I can rely on. Both my students and their parents are happy with the new room. As for me, I now have more time to prepare for lessons, I have more time to talk with the kids and parents. What’s more important, I think now I know more about the kids than I did before, I know them better.

So why do I teach English to young learners? What do I want to do as a teacher of English?

Today, I will answer like this. I teach English because I can tell for sure that learning English is being able to learn about anything in the world. I want English to become a language as important and natural as Japanese for my students. With the help of my classes, I want to encourage these kids to live with confidence and have dreams that English can help them fulfill. I am teaching English to see kids’ shining eyes.

The experience I have been through this year helped me to get stronger. Maybe my post is not such a big deal for other teachers, but this is the way for me to express my gratitude to the bloggers, authors, and other teachers who share their lesson ideas and help me learn more about teaching English. The more I get to know about students, textbooks, new ideas, the more I love teaching English.



A Perfect Boy

Naoko Amanoby Naoko Amano

I teach a class on Tuesdays from 5:15-6:30 pm. There are 6 students in the class. Five of them are first grade students (4 boys and 1 girl) and the other student is a kindergarten girl. The first grade girl has been studying English since she was 2 and has already passed a pretty difficult standardised English test. She has a dedicated mother who observes each and every class. Sometimes the mother even takes pictures of what we are doing in class. My policy is to welcome parents observing class anytime, still I was surprised that this particular mother asked me if she could observe each and every class.

All the first grade students went to the same kindergarten. They are very energetic and used to come into the classroom and chase each other around in a game of tag. I would tell them “It’s time to start! Let’s make a circle,” but only the one kindergarten girl would ever come over. The other students just kept talking and running. Finally, they would wander over to me and say hello. Even when the lesson did start, one of the boys, lets call him K-Kun, kept talking in Japanese and moving around when he was supposed to be sitting down and concentrating. In fact, the only time he ever did sit still was for ‘prize time’ at the end of the class. The other students often imitated what he was doing and soon the lessons just fell apart. The other students would answer K-Kun’s nonsense questions and laugh whenever he talked. At first, I tried to figure out what was wrong with my lesson plans. Did I need to include more interesting activities? Did I need to make things more fun? I tried new games, roll-plays, fun songs, collecting stamps to get prizes. I made the activities short and moved directly from one activity to another with no wait time. I even tried arts and craft day and games only lessons. But it made things worse. The students enjoyed the games, but they didn’t try and use English at all, I could barely finish half of a normal lesson plan. I felt terrible for the kindergarten girl. And the poor higher-level first grade girl, what we were learning was far too easy for her.

I decided to talk about K-kun to his mother. Just as I had finally made up my mind to call her, she sent me an email. She wrote that she had heard about her sons attitude from the first grade girls’s mother who always observed our class but, more than her son’s attitude, she was upset that I would sometimes scold her son. According to her email, she did not believe K-Kun could possibly be misbehaving so badly in class. She thought I was being overly harsh. I called her, we talked, and I suggested she come and watch a class or two. She took me up on my offer and came the next week.

Even with his mother watching, K-Kun was 100% K-Kun. He talked to the other students when he should have been listening, he wandered around the room, and even talked to himself. After class, his mother told me that she didn’t know what to do. She said, “At school he’s a very good boy. His homeroom teacher tells me he is a leader. But at home, he doesn’t listen to me at all. I’m always having to scold him.” She looked down and almost whispered, “Actually, it’s driving me crazy. At school he is a very good boy. I don’t know why he acts like this at home and in English class.”

That’s when I realised K-Kun IS a good boy. He is trying his hardest all day at school. He is under so much pressure. When he gets home, he is exhausted. He just wants to relax, he just wants to talk and spend time with his mom. He just wants to be himself. So I gently suggested that she try not to scold her son, instead of telling him what to do next, take some time and listen to him. Don’t tell him how to behave in English class. Don’t make English class another chore he has to do. Just bring him to class and say, “Enjoy your lesson.” I’m sure K-Kun’s mom thought I was giving her advice, but really, while I was talking to K-kun’s mom, I was figuring things out for myself, I was thinking about what I had to do to be the kind of teacher K-Kun needed.

Since that day, I don’t start class by calling the students over and launching into an activity. Instead, I walk over to them and ask about their days. I share the stories of my day, too. Eventually we are all sitting down, naturally, in a circle and chatting. When I first started doing ‘circle time’ at the beginning of the class, it was 10% Japanese. As the students talked, they, and especially K-Kun, calmed down and would focus on the lesson. Recently, they have started to use the English we learned in class as they tell me the stories of their days.

I’ve been teaching English for 7 years now. Over that time I’ve gradually learned different ways to teach. I’ve also become better at listening to what parents want. The more techniques I collected and the more expectations I tried to meet, the less I could see the reason why I became an English teacher in the first place. I am an English teacher because I believed, and I still believe, that communicating in English is fun. Not only fun. It’s the kind of fun that helps students learn about themselves and their world. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, I had gotten a little lost, and instead of helping students find their own world, I had tried to drag them into my own task-oriented world. It took one very ‘good boy’ named K-Kun to remind me that wanting to learn English often must start with a student believing that their teacher is interested in them as a person, that their teacher is truly interested in listening to whatever it is they need to say.