Nine years ago while I was doing a diploma in middle school education. I was sent to two different schools as a student teacher. At the second school I was put with a class that had a serious bullying problem. The problem bothered me so much that to this day I still think about it. This class had six girls and twelve boys. The girls were an incredibly tight-nit group. The boys on the other hand had several groups but by in large got along with each other well enough except for one of them. Every day there would be at least one instance in which one of the boys would say something and then this boy would shout something along the lines of why are you always attacking me. I asked the teacher about this but she declared that that was just how it was. That they had been a class together for years. The situation was like that when she got the class. This puzzled me even more. I felt strongly that I should help this kid but I didn’t know how. For one thing, I didn’t understand what exactly was causing this problem.
After years of reflection I realised that I had all the pieces to solve the puzzle. The problem didn’t lie with the way the boy and the others were interacting. It lay with how all the boys interacted with each other. The boys spoke to him the same way they spoke to the others. This I already knew and at the time was trying to point it out to the boy. He took it as me siding with the others and suggesting it was his own fault. This hadn’t been my intention. The question I didn’t ask at the time was why the boys talked to each other that way in the first place and why it was triggering this boy in such a way.
While I was there I taught the class about Japanese sports days. They are quite different to Australian sports days. While there are individual events the majority of the activities are based around co-operation. How effective the group can work together as a team determines if they can win or not. I taught two events to that class. One was called the caterpillar race. The idea behind this race is that contestants feet are tied together. Like the image below. I divided the class into a girls group and two boys groups. The girls won the race easily. The two boys groups couldn’t get more than a metre before breaking the rope.
The next activity was the typhoon game. In this game three people hold a bamboo pole and run together in a straight line. When they get to a witches hat they have to go around in clockwise. They then have to run to the next witches hat and run counter clockwise. After that they return to the rest of the group where the run the bamboo pole under the others legs and then over their heads. Again the girls easily won this race. The boys were barely able to do it. They had the same problem that they had when they did the caterpillar race. They couldn’t work together. In both instances the fastest runner dictated the pace preventing the group from being able to keep up causing them to fail.
This activity highlights exactly what was wrong with that class and why that one kid was so isolated and hated. That class was highly competitive. Every boy considered himself to be the best. The downside to such an atmosphere is that they all wanted to prove that they were the best. This led to a culture of criticism and ego. The boys would say to each other “I’m better than you, you can’t do …” the typical response was much the same thing. “No, I’m better because you can’t do …” So when the one boy who wasn’t competitive said “Why are you always criticizing me?” he wasn’t wrong. The interesting thing about the situation is that the boys didn’t understand that they were criticizing him. They thought, “but I say the same thing to everyone else.” The teacher was also highly competitive and so she couldn’t see what the problem was either. She inevitably sided with the boys because they were exhibited behaviour she valued.
My conclusion is that this boy experienced years of bullying because of a system failure. The system prized competition over everything else to the point that those that weren’t competitive suffered. There was no actual bully in this situation. It was far worse. The entire society was against him unintentionally.
What would I have done differently? It’s hard to know. I don’t have a clear answer but I do know the fundamental problem was a society so competitive it couldn’t understand how working together could give you a competitive advantage. If I had a year with them I would have constantly used group activities like the ones mentioned but also pushed group activities that rely on the group using their collective skills to succeed.
This is the question that Shino and I have been asking ourselves. Why are there smart high school 3rd graders who struggle in English class? It’s a sore point for many adults that end up thinking there weren’t very smart or just didn’t have a good head for languages. Neither is true. Everyone can learn a second language. You don’t have to be a genius and you don’t have to be born with it.
Does the following sound familiar:
While sitting in class the teacher is talking about a new grammar point. They are using lots of Japanese phrases you have never heard of to describe this new grammar point. You are having difficulty understanding but you feel like you can’t ask a question. You think, maybe it will make sense at the end of the lesson. It doesn’t though. You talk to the teacher after class but the explanation still doesn’t make sense. You go home and try reading the textbook. Maybe you can teach it to yourself.
I had a similar experience in grade 11 (high school grade 2). I chose to study Chemistry for my final two years. I had always gotten high marks in Science. In fact I found science easy. In that first year though I failed my first test. To make it worse my teacher posted the results of the test on the wall at the back of the room. I felt horrified and stupid. To make things worse the teacher was the type of teacher who didn’t like students who said that they didn’t understand. I thought what is wrong? Why can’t I understand? I studied the textbook every night after that, reading the same pages over and over again. The next test I passed.
That was science though. Science has a simple logic that you can follow. Learning a language is different to learning science. It is not easy to self-study in a language. I know because I have been studying Japanese for years bouncing from one terrible textbook to the next. Sorry to say, but there are no good Japanese textbooks. Most of them are drill books. You don’t learn to communicate by using a drill book. With a good book though, you can self study. The problem is that the high school English textbooks are not designed for self study. You cannot just read them and understand.
Let’s continue that story from above:
You study at home reading the textbook over and over again. You try to complete the drills but you don’t understand how to get the right answer. You get to the test and you try to answer it. When you get it back you find you only got 20 our of 100. You look through your answers. Wrong spelling, wrong word order, incorrect word. You ask the teacher about it and she gives you the correct answer, but you don’t know why it’s correct. You try reading the textbook again. The textbook is getting harder and it still doesn’t make any sense. You talk to your parents about it. They shrug their shoulders and say “I was the same.”
If this is you, you are stuck in a cycle that you can’t get out of by yourself. The longer you are in this cycle the harder it will be to break. I’ve had lots of grade three students come to me with saying they can’t understand English but they want to do well on the university tests. They say that when they got to high school it was too hard and they started failing. I always say that I will try my best but you should have come to me earlier.
I have been learning Tsugaru Shamisen now for about three years. I love the instrument. I’ve tried to learn several instruments in my life. This is the first time I’ve found an instrument that speaks to me. For those who don’t know what a shamisen is. It is a three string percussion instrument. In English it is often called a three string guitar, but this isn’t an accurate description. Having learnt the guitar as well I can say these two instruments are very different. As you can see in the picture below the instrument has a drum. While at times you do pluck the strings usually you strike the string along with the drum. In a room with good acoustics this has an amazing effect on the music you are playing.
I have a lesson three times a month with my instructor. Instruction is all done by ear. There is no sheet music. The teacher will play the piece then I will copy it. We go through this several times until i have learnt the piece by rote. In this way I have memorised seven pieces of music. I also film each lesson so that I can get my practice correct at home. The skills I’ve learnt in this class have really helped me develop my listening skills. I also think, although I haven’t tested this theory, that I may be able to learn new songs by watching people perform on video provided. Hopefully I can get it to the stage that I can learn new songs by listening. The whole experience has been rewarding.
There have also been bumps along the way due to language barriers. My teacher speaks no English and while my Japanese listening skills are good I have never developed a good rapport with my teacher. I find her very difficult to talk with. One problem is my manner when explaining that I am having difficulty with something ends up being very abrupt. Not at all what my teacher expects from her student. Thus I have had two incidences where the teacher has stormed out of the room refusing to teach me. I guess considering I’ve been learning from her for three years twice is a pretty good record.
Both times, her reaction has caught me completely by surprise. The first time she was playing through a piece of music i wasn’t feeling confident with at the full speed it’s meant to be played. I felt very frustrated and eventually called out that she was playing too fast and I couldn’t keep up. She rebuked me saying I wasn’t practicing enough and told me to get out. At the time I felt very incensed since I had been practicing as often as I could but just didn’t feel like I knew the song. The second time was yesterday. I was having difficulty with part of a song I was playing. My instructor corrected the part and I was trying to play it by myself. I saw her reach for her shamisen to show me how to play it and I put out my hand to say ‘No, I can do this.’ In English this is a sign of my determination to get it right by myself. In hindsight instead of saying ‘Dekiru’ i should have said ‘Yattemiyou’ meaning I want to try it. She sat there watching me play through the piece. I had no idea she was angry and when i looked up at her asking if I got it right. Her response puzzled me. She said ‘I don’t know, what piece were you playing?’ She then berated me for saying that I can do it when she thought I couldn’t. She ended the lesson there much to my shock and anger.
Looking back I realise she was taking my words as a hostile act. In her mind if the teacher thinks you can’t do it then you stop and let the teacher correct you. You do not say ‘No, I can do it.’ I love playing the shamisen and I have enjoyed the way it is taught but these times where the teacher has refused to finish a lesson have soured my feeling toward the teacher herself. I suspect though that this is they way music is taught in Japan. You must respect the teacher. You cannot question. Teacher knows best. I’ve always had a problem with respecting people. To me respect is not something you demand. It is something you give to someone you feel is worthy. I guess this is just another cultural difference I must overcome if I want to learn the instrument I love.