Last summer, when I was teaching poetry with some friends to elementary schoolers, I often jokingly asked that. “How do I reeeeach these kiiiiiids?”
I was sort of thinking the same thing for a while, here in Japan.
Let’s be honest here: I hated middle school (like everyone else did), and I told myself a really long time ago that if I were ever to become a teacher, I would never want to teach at a middle school.
When I came into the JET Programme, I really just wanted to teach elementary school. I know that job exists—only teaching English at elementary schools—because another JET has that job and I want to kill him and take his job. (Unfortunately, I’m a jewel thief and not a trained killer, so I’ll have to hire someone to get anything done…) High school would have been okay, too, but I would have really preferred elementary school. The way I see it, elementary school would just be fun, and in high school, I would be able to talk to them about more complicated topics—like racism in Japan.
I’ve always thought that middle school was less about learning in the classroom and more about learning to survive crappy times. So I thought it would be really frustrating to teach in that environment. (Someone’s gotta do it, though, I suppose.)
As for the actual middle school students, Victor says that kids that age “aren’t even people.” I don’t exactly agree with that, but it’s funny anyway.
I have next to nothing in common with middle school students, because they have crappy taste in… well, everything. EVERYTHING. As a middle school student, I also had crappy taste in everything. It’s because middle school students are in this weird transitional period, when they’re discovering a bunch of new things. It happens in puberty, so why not happen with their interests?
It’s like grade school is a book or movie trilogy. The first and third parts are pretty great, but the second part is transitional and kind of sucks on its own. That’s why everyone hates the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie and thinks that The Two Towers is the worst of the LOTR films.
Anyway, let me give you a real example. In middle school, kids start becoming more aware of their bodies, and this tends to be the age when girls start wearing makeup. The other day when I was in Tateyama, I saw some young girls wearing makeup—way too much makeup. Kids are terrible at putting on makeup. Just terrible. And that’s because they don’t know how to do it properly. They’re discovering something new and learning what to do with it.
So just like how they don’t know how to wear makeup, they also don’t know or like actually good music or TV shows. Because they’re learning. Someday they will, but right now…
Besides having crappy taste in anything, they refuse to like certain things because it’s considered “childish.” This is understandable—they are trying to separate themselves from children, because they want to be perceived as “grown up,” because that’s what they’re doing—growing up. But still… it’s so great to be able to talk to elementary school kids about Spongebob Squarepants, while most of the time, middle school students will hide any interest they might have in it (unless I’m alone with them, which has happened sometimes).
There have been a few things I can agree with them on. One student really likes Fullmetal Alchemist, and we’ve bonded over that. Some students really like Glee, which I don’t like, but that has been an easy way to talk about music that we like, since Glee covers (and steals from) some of my favorite artists.
How do I connect to these kids?
For the first couple months on the job, I was having a lot of trouble talking to the kids at all. We had nothing in common, so what do we talk about?
It’s like when you try to make a friend with someone you just met—if you have nothing in common, you don’t become friends. That’s kind of just it, right? As far as I know, anyway.
But I’m stuck with these kids, and they’re stuck with me. So what do we do?
I was really scared for a long time. I thought I was just a terrible ALT and I just couldn’t connect with the kids, and because of this, they wouldn’t be interested in English at all.
I expressed my concerns at some ALT meeting—it might have been the Block 8 meeting—and some of the other ALTs gave me some great advice.
“That’s exactly how I felt for my first year,” she said. “All I can say is that it gets better. For me at least, it got a lot better in February of my first year. Suddenly, things just turned around.”
I wasn’t sure if it would work out the same for me—the JET motto is “Every Situation Is Different,” after all—but I was holding out hope that this would be true for me too. Or else maybe I am just a screw-up.
And then February came
February was pretty busy because of the Wisconsin program, so I didn’t really have time to think about it. But last week, several things happened that made me think of that ALT’s advice.
And then there were Cowboy Eggs
First, I managed to arrange a cooking class for my third year students. It was sort of last minute, and I wasn’t informed until the Friday before that last week was their last week. Graduation is technically on March 13th, but after last week, they were done with school.
So, I thought, crap.
I told my JTE that I really wanted to do a fun class for them before they left, and somehow she convinced the other teachers to let me do it. I don’t know much about the bureaucracy involved, but she made it sound difficult. I was so grateful that she fought for me, in any case.
I chose an easy, quick recipe, which worked out since classes were so short. Before I even asked her about it, I had created the lesson plan and recipe worksheet, so it was no trouble to put it together! I just had to buy the ingredients myself (dunno if I’ll get reimbursed, and I honestly don’t care), and then we were good to go.
So on Monday, February 25th, the JTE and I introduced the recipe to both of the third year classes. The next two days, we went to the cooking room and made cowboy eggs.
And it was a success! They did a great job making them, and many of them wrote in their diary entries that they enjoyed it. We ran a bit over time, but it worked out okay.
At the end of each of the cooking lessons, I announced that I had presents for them, and as they walked out the door, I handed them each a paper crane that I had made over the weekend. They seemed really happy, and I was pleased with how well the class had gone.
And then there was a bento
The second thing happened on Tuesday. I was planning to eat with a third year class during lunch, but suddenly, some first years approached me in the hall.
Do you remember that group of first years from a previous entry that asked me a bunch of questions about food? It was these kids. And they were holding a plastic bento box.
“Megan-sensei,” said Anna, “this is yours.”
She handed me the bento box that they had made—apparently, specifically for me. I know it was an assignment, but I was still touched. They were all really sweet about it. I don’t know if they chose me or were assigned me, but either way—aww! They made me lunch!
“Today,” said Yusuke, “eat with us?”
First, we stopped by the staff room so they could have a JTE translate some questions about the food for them. I needed to fill out a sheet evaluating the lunch after I ate it—based on presentation, hospitality, taste, appearance, etc.
We walked to the cooking room’s dining area together and sat down. It was SUPER COLD in the dining area, but the food was good. They also made me a school lunch tray, but there was no way I’d be able to eat the lunch they made me and school lunch, so I only ate part of it.
They watched me eat the whole time—awkward—but the food they made was pretty good. They were so nervous. It was really sweet!
After I ate, I filled out the sheet right there, because I didn’t really have anything bad to write. I wrote it in simple English, and I think for the most part, they could read it (or at least their teacher could). I thought that maybe it would seem dishonest and unhelpful if I didn’t write any criticism, so I played it safe and said that the spicy part could have been spicier—because that was one thing they asked me. “Do you like spicy food? How spicy?” Well, if they were making this specifically to cater to my answers, then it needed to be spicier. So yeah, constructive criticism. Hopefully that was okay.
And then there was a connection
The third thing happened on Thursday.
One second year student doesn’t come to school very often. She’s rather sickly, and I think she has some circumstances that I’m not privy to. I noticed her regular absence sometime in October, and I asked the JTE about it. She explained, vaguely, that the student has trouble studying. She likes to be around her peers, but she has a lot of trouble studying in class. Apparently, she does better when she’s in the special ed classes—she can work at her own pace—but I think she probably likes being around her classmates too much to stay in the special classes. It’s probably a source of frustration for her.
Anyway, I told the JTE to let the student know that I was worried about her and wanted her to come to school. (The JTE is her homeroom teacher, so she takes care of the student and visits her house a lot.)
The days she does come to school, whenever I see her, I say hello and tell her that I missed her. In the week before the Wisconsin students came, I ran into her.
“Hey, come to school next week, okay?” I said. “Wisconsin students will be here. Come to school so you can play with them!”
She gave a noncommittal answer, and I don’t think she came to school the next week. Oh well.
Anyway, last Thursday during cleaning time at the end of the day, she came to the English room.
“Megan-sensei!” she said.
“Oh, hello!” I said. “Hisashiburi!” (“Long time no see!”)
She hurried over to me, and suddenly, she hugged me.
For a split second, I didn’t know what to do. It was such a surprise, and the other students in the room seemed surprised, too.
The second passed quickly, and I hugged her back.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Happy,” she said.
An even bigger surprise. Usually she says, “So-so.”
So here’s how you reeeeeeeach these kiiiiiids
kindness: N. (1) The quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. (2) A kind act. “Kindness is a language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain
hisashiburi: Japanese for “Long time no see” or “It’s been a long time.”
cowboy eggs: A delicious breakfast food made by cutting a hole in a piece of bread, frying it, and cracking an egg into the hole.