Gavin Bielski (Teacher, Smith’s School of English – Kyobashi)
Teaching English in Japan has been an incredible learning experience for me. I studied Japanese in Colleges including Kansai Gaidai so I have some idea what it’s like to work toward not only grammatical understanding, but actual functional mastery of a foreign language. I had the chance to experience the frustrations, the triumphs, and all the emotions that come in between. I had no formal TESL training before coming to Japan, so I was relieved to find that Smith’s provided full, intensive training courses designed to suit even someone with as little experience as I had. I was nervous at first, but I had the full support of the training staff and fellow coaches (as we call ourselves) here at Smith’s. Two years later, I’m still here and I welcome the challenge that each individual class brings.
At Smith’s Kyobashi we have a large percentage of beginner level students, so I’m never at a loss for chances to perfect my beginner level lesson techniques. I’ve heard teachers at ordinary schools complain that beginner level lessons can be challenging because the students have such underdeveloped listening skills. In addition, I’ve heard those same teachers claim that a beginner level student’s limited vocabulary makes them unable to sustain extended conversations. When I hear things like that, I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief that I joined a school like Smith’s.
At Smith’s we have a standard target balance for Student-Talk-Time and Coach-Talk-Time. That balance is STT 70 percent, CTT 30 percent. I take great comfort in knowing that every time I reach this ratio in class I’ve truly helped my student improve his or her skills. As a student of foreign language myself, I can understand why having that much talking time is crucial. Like many Japanese studying at English schools in Japan today, I was chock full of book knowledge with no chance to practice using it. It wasn’t until I joined some conversation focused classes with low student to teacher ratio that I was forced to actually put that knowledge to the test. I was forced to simply speak. If the student is speaking for 70 percent of the class time, I can spend that much more time focusing on the student’s needs rather than wondering if what I’m saying is being comprehended in full or not. At Smith’s we say: keep it simple and let the student practice. After all, that’s the reason the student is coming to class in the first place.
As for concerns as to whether a beginner level student can sustain extended conversation or not, I let the Smith’s curriculum handle that. By simply following the lesson plans step by step, even from my very first week, I was able to provide a full array of exercises that keep students of any level practicing and taking up lesson time with what a good conversation lesson should be full of: The student speaking English. Please note: not static listening, not reading, not thinking about; actually speaking.
In my typical Beginner level class I welcome the student into my classroom and get seated by 0 minutes on the hour. At Smith’s most students tend to filter into the lobby about 10 minutes before their scheduled time slot. The curriculum has been so easy to use that, after some initial study to familiarize myself with the notations and lesson plan content, it takes me no more than a few minutes to select a student’s lesson. This leaves me with plenty of time to relax, take a break, grab a coffee or tea, and chat with students and other coaches in the lobby area. Since things run so smoothly, I’ve never had a problem starting a lesson at the top of the hour.
ET A1.59 – From Smith’s School of English One Point Series
It’s winter time, so the students are generally burdened with heavy coats, bags, or shopping parcels. I take this opportunity to establish trust with the student right from the start. There are two empty seats available for this one-to-one class so I casually ask the student “Which seat do you want?” indicating both seats in turn. On average, the student looks a little confused at this point. I always imagine: He must be wondering why I asked such a silly question. It’s at that point the student’s expression changes from confusion to one of surprise and understanding. Even before sitting down, he whips out his note book and hurriedly flips through the pages to double check. Sure enough, this is the exact same grammatical situation that he had finished his previous lesson with. Slapping the note book shut and straightening up with pride, the student triumphantly says “Either will do!” I say “Well then, please take a seat!” and we share a laugh as he sits down comfortably.
This simple technique of reviewing and important point from the previous lesson reassures the student that I know exactly who he is and what he’s studying. This is important whether the previous class was taught by me or another coach on staff. My favorite part about establishing this trust right off the bat if watching the students shoulders relax afterwards, showing their level of comfort. What’s more, the shoulders snap back to attention as soon as I start to speak again. There’s something about getting that review in within the first minute that really lets the student know that class has begun and, even if it may sound like it, we’re not just chatting; it’s practice time.
Routine 2 – From Smith’s School of English Routine Series
After establishing trust with the student and warming up just a bit by asking them about their work day or recent weekend I transit into the new material which I’ve selected to have the student work through. In this case, I choose our Question and Answer routine number two called “To the Station”. I always start by scrawling “Routine” in bold letters across the top of the board and announcing the word so that the student knows what type of lesson to be ready for. At Smith’s we have three major lesson styles, each with multiple sub categories. If I do a good job of being clear and consistent in my transitions, the student will be ready for the style of practice coming up next. Upon announcing the lesson type, I often see students pulling out color coded notebooks or flipping to a certain section of a larger notebook. When I see this I know the student and I are on the same page right from the start.
Smith’s Question and Answer (Q and A) routines are great for beginner level students. They focus on strengthening confidence in grammar, responding to common questions, and stringing short simple ideas into longer, fluent, compound sentences. I choose to work the student on Q and A questions 1 through 3, 6, 7, and 10. For this student, questions 3, 6 and 7 are being presented as new material. I start by tying the new routine into the previous routines the student is already familiar with. Smith’s Q and A routines are sequential and build upon one another, so with less than a minute review or Routine 1 (using only the hint bar) I can move directly into Routine 2 using the new question number 7.
I draw out the second sentence using question 2 and then introduce new question 3 to complete the thought. In comparing sentences one and two, the student notes that the verbs “get on” and “ride” are typically expressed using only a single verb in Japanese. I quickly demonstrate the difference between the two. The student gives a long “Ooooh” and nods his head as he notes this point into his book.
The format is familiar to the student, but the material is new so of course there are some times where he’s going to need some help. This is where I see some doubt in the student’s face. It’s that same look of doubt that I saw during the student’s first trial lesson. I use board work to help the student along. I ask him questions and give visual hints as to the answer I’m looking for. If the student gives a partial answer, I lock it onto the white board (leaving blank underlines for missing words to be filled in later). The student takes comfort in knowing that he’s gotten 80 percent of the sentence correct on his own and is happy to receive and extra hint (either mimed or written) in order to finish it off. At sentence 6 we come to an impasse where the student is having a vocabulary problem. He’s completed the target sentence with the exception of a single word and is repeating out-loud the Japanese word “kaisatsu… kaisatsu”. It’s at times like this that the student’s eyes practically scream “Please! Help me! Get me out of this hole!” The student and I both know what he’s trying to say but he just needs a slight push to get there. I put my marker to the white board before the student begins to feel too frustrated and scrawl “ticket gate” onto the section of my board reserved for new vocabulary.
We had a few sentences that needed worked on, and there are a few new words in the “vocab box” but we worked through all 11 sentences in this routine.
The next thing I do is a pronunciation check. To the student I simply say “Ok! Hatsuon check!” Hatsuon is the Japanese word for pronunciation. I often use Japanese when speaking directly about parts of speech or classroom-based grammatical terms. I don’t see a need to confuse students with technical terms for grammar that they don’t need to carry on a conversation. We’re a conversation school after all, right?
The student repeats the sentences he’s just formed (mostly of his own effort, I offered only hints or support when needed). This time, although the student is focused on their pronunciation, I note a definite change in body language from being uncertain and possible defensive to leaning forward, into the classroom, exuding confidence. It’s as though their thinking “Round two is mine.” As the student goes through each sentence, I listen for possibly damaging pronunciation errors at the same time as writing an abbreviated hint version of all 11 sentences horizontally across the lower part of the board.
Now it’s time for the true test. I erase the full sentences leaving only the one word hints at the bottom. I ask all the same questions again, and the student answers in full, with very few mistakes if any. The student often seems surprised and relieved at this point, but it comes as no surprise to me anymore. Through the design of the lesson, the student has already practiced each individual sentence five times or more without even realizing it. Furthermore, each routine is designed specifically to reinforce the students existing knowledge and give him the confidence he needs to speak fluently. I don’t necessarily have to understand the mechanics of the lesson to that level of detail, I just know it works! After completing the entire routine using the hint bar only, I congratulate the student with a hearty hand shake and the student exhales loudly. He understands that the workout is over and slumps back into his chair but noticeably has a smile on his face. I imagine he’s feeling the weight of his accomplishment at this time. After double checking with the student, I clear the entire board outside of the “new vocab” box and write up the heading for the next segment of my four step lesson plan process.
As I mentioned, at Smith’s we have three major lesson styles. Those lesson styles are transitioned between using a 4 step process that we call “the Loop”. By using this 4 step process in every lesson we ensure a great number of things to both ourselves and the students. Not the least of which is a consistent easily identifiable direction of study that the students can feel.
Item Past 1 – From Smith’s School of English Item Series
Since the student has already worked through some new material in the Routine, the next step is to cover something for review. Thanks to the Loop, I can guarantee my students that every single lesson will contain some form of review to ensure they maintain everything they’ve worked for so far. This student’s review comes in the form of the basic level Item lesson plan, Past 1. The student has already completed this lesson once, so I can jump right into to Presentation section of the lesson. I write the example dialog up on the white board as the lesson plan describes and proceed to practice it with the student. The student plays the part of A and I am B. We use the Smith’s cards corresponding to this lesson to which makes sure the student can focus on making natural sounding sentences without wracking their brains for subject matter. We focus more on creativity with higher level students, once the basics are locked down. Comparatively, this part of the lesson is much less intense but still focused. The student and I share a laugh when I answer “Yes, I did.” To a question like: “Did you go to the beach yesterday?” It is the middle of December after all.
After a nice ten minutes of review I move into my fourth and final step of the Loop: the One Point. I transit again by simply asking the student if I can wipe the board. This time the student realizes there’s something he hasn’t noted yet and says “Oh! Oh! Wait!” while he scribbles down a few more crucial notes. After the student finishes, I clear the board and write One Point as the new heading. I always enjoy the unique way students express themselves when it comes to One Points. The firs thing they do is look at the clock. If a Smith’s coach says “Ok, One Point.” The student knows the lesson is over, usually before they realize it. Some write a simple heading, some draw stars, some make a cloud to write the one point into. I’ve see some students who switch to colored markers and draw little hearts next to where they will put the One Point into their notes. Let’s just say that they are a popular favorite.
One Point A3.24 – From Smith’s School of English One Point Series
Today’s one point is A 3.24. We’ve had a great lesson and I’m actually a little light on CTT so I let go a little and tell the student to imagine we had a promise to meet, but I am late. We do a little roll play back and forth until the student is comfortable with how and when to use the One Point phrase. The students all seem to enjoy pretending to be mad at me for being late for some reason. We have another good laugh.
With that, my Loop is complete so I clear the board again. After checking the student’s notes to make sure none of the new vocabulary has been overlooked I clear the “vocab box” as well and thank the student for another great lesson. We walk back out to the lobby together and say a cheerful goodbye and see you next week. I grab a hot tea and head back to fill in extra details on the student’s lesson report. I’ve got a good fifteen minutes to relax before my next lesson so I chat with another coach about something interesting that happened during her lesson. We head out and take a seat in the lobby together to wait for the next set of students. They should be coming in anytime now.