Friday, November 2, 2007

Speeches from hell

The beginning of November marks my third month in Japan and my second month actually teaching. Well, sort of. Pretty much all of September was dedicated to giving my self introduction and evaluating a speech assignment that my first-year (10th grade) students were given by my predecessor. Of the 19 classes I teach, 16 are first-years. At 20 students per class, that means 320 students had to give a speech.

They were assigned to write a 300-500 word speech in English on their dream for the future. If they didn't have a dream, then they could write about something they couldn't live without. Then they had to deliver the speech to me.

I think the real purpose behind the assignment was to identify a few students with exceptional English skill who could participate in an English essay contest that several high schools around here participate in. Unfortunately, this assignment was way over the head of 99.9 percent of the students.

It was unquestionably the work assignment from hell. August and September were miserably hot in Hiroshima. I overheard one local say it was the hottest summer in 80 years. With the extreme humidity taken into account, the heat actually felt over 100 degrees on many days. And remember, outside of the teachers' main office, the school doesn't have air conditioning.

So there I was, suffocating in a hot classroom with near zero air circulation, sweat dripping down my back, trying to judge these poor kids' speeches. I had to fight falling asleep in every class. I started making random lists in class just to keep myself awake.

The sweltering heat was bad enough, but it was worse than just that. The kids were never given any instruction on how to prepare a real speech. So one by one, they dragged themselves to the head of the class and read straight from their paper without ever looking up, without ever gesturing or moving. They all talked in a monotone, and at least half of them were so shy that they refused to speak loudly enough to be heard, even when I was sitting in the front row.

Many have pronunciation so bad that it was pretty much impossible to tell what they're saying. But even if they HAD all pronounced the words perfectly, most of the speeches still would have been incomprehensible simply because they were written so poorly.

Grading them made my head hurt. How was I supposed to grade a kid's speech in six different categories when I had no idea what he said?

I was lamenting to my cousin yesterday about the absurdity of this assignment. I said it was hard for me to understand how students in their fourth year of English training (keeping in mind that they already know the alphabet when they start, so it's not like they're starting totally from scratch) can't use pronouns or tenses properly. Many of the students, for example, never used the pronoun "I" to refer to themselves. Instead, they'd made statements like, "It wants to be a dentist." I just assumed they must have been taught incorrectly.

Not exactly, my cousin informed me. What many of the kids do for an assignment like this is write the speech in Japanese and then type it into an online translator. Because pronouns often aren't used in Japanese (they're inferred through context), the translator totally mangles the translation.

Thus, I ended up listening to hundreds of speeches like this one:

My dream in the future is a civil servant. The civil servant can be useful for the person though what you want to become has not been decided yet. It is therefore because of the desire as it is possible to repay the kindness to the people, family, and the friend in the vicinity that is indebted up to now. It tries out for after it finishes high school to join the civil service or there is a method of going to each special school. I think that I should hold out study and club activities in this High school to join the civil service before that. In study, it reviews, it is prepared to seem to do by the following class, and I think that have doing by the class remembered all by it because it returns to the house in the content studied at the school so as not to get a red point in the future very day. When summer vacation opens because the society is not the good at five subjects and the school starts, I have it to work or study around the society. I belong to the soccer club the club. The soccer club in the high school holds out the exchange and garbage with the person in the study region though it is wide. It is possible to become man that the boast is popular among me besides the technology of soccer and the improvement of physical strength when entering this soccer club though soccer holds out of course. We will have it for the offering enjoying the original cancer denunciation of the guidance of the teacher of adviser's valley it is possible to do teacher and the class and the school life in the future for the future though it becomes impossible to do becoming busy because of the examination when becoming the third grader and enjoying the school life so much.

Does your head hurt yet? If not, here's another:

The time is thing what I can not live without. The time can not stopping. No matter what anybody says, we can not change it. The time can not stop. I often think. "I am happy if the time is stop." And, "The time is stop? That is impossible!" I felt fast in the morning. "I am sleepy. I do not want to act." But the time is fast gaining. the time is not forgive. I felt slowly in class. One minute but I felt ten minute. the time is slowly gaining. The time is not forgive. When I am happy, the time is fast gaining. When I am not happy, the time is slow gaining. The time is unfair. So I do not like time. But, the time is nothing if I will very difficulty. Because I am listless, there is the time. So I hurry to school. "Hurry up! I will be late!" So I am upset. "It is already ten o'clock. I must study English my homework!" So I am relief. "It is only nine o'clok. I play a little more game." If there is not the time, I can not nothing. Not only me, people need the time. It is Japanese, American, Chinese, French and British so. But there are people that do not mind the time in the world. It is only a few country. Other countrys have run down by the time. We need the time, when go to the work, when go to school, when wait for a parson, when get up early and so on. The time is one of the most important thing of the present day. If keep to the time, dismissed from the company. If keep to the time, lose a parson's trust. I do not like the time but it need me.

Needless to say, I was about ready to hammer my brains out by the time I'd listened to the students recite 300 monotone speeches like this. I wouldn't wish this assignment on my worst enemy.

It really frustrated me that we wasted class time on this. The kids clearly hated delivering the speeches, and in every class they just went straight to sleep until it was their turn. The (very messy) written transcripts were so horribly mangled that it was impossible for me to correct them in a really meaningful way. I tried anyway.

The experience made me realize the value of the detailed curriculum standards that the U.S. and the state of Ohio have created. I don't think American teachers have the flexibility to assign meaningless work like this because they're too busy aligning all their lessons to cover concepts on the standardized tests. Maybe the government's heavy hand in the education system isn't as bad as I thought. Yes, it means every kid gets a cookie cutter education, but it also means teachers are forced to design lessons and assignments with a clear purpose.

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