August 22, 2013 | Teaching | 3 Comments
When I first arrived in Japan last year, I was so anxious about so many things, I thought I’d resolve into a puddle of nerves and that’d be that. But, here I am, still in a more-or-less solid state of matter and keen on easing any apprehensions Gunma’s newcomers might have about self introductions (jiko shōkai). And even if you’re as cool as a cabbage (you’re in Gunma now, champ—cabbage trumps cucumber every time!), perhaps my unsolicited advice can still help anyhow.
So, reflecting on those early Augustan days of yesteryear, what probably gnawed at me most was how I was going to conduct my very first classes with my students. That is, how was I going to approach the nebulous business of the self-introduction lesson? After all, these initial classes would set the tone for what I would be paid to do for the next couple years… wouldn’t they?
At that point I had no teaching experience and knew zero Japanese (hah, who did I fleece to get here?). I felt really unsure of myself and so, unsurprisingly, I spawned a self-intro that was, at best, a fair to middling thing. Sure, at the time I was proud of it, but later on I realized that I could have done things a whole lot better. Luckily, I’ve been gifted a great relationship with my students from those wobbly self-intros onward, but by the end of the school year, with so much of my life in Japan put into perspective, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that my students were being pretty generous at the beginning there.
But then came the brand new school year and with it the opportunity to craft a jiko shōkai with a lot more jazz and far more pizzazz. I wanted to give my first year students (ichinensei) a lesson that would actually get them excited; excited about me, yeah, but more importantly and by extension, one that would get them excited about English.
With some sweeping reformatting, I was able to give my incoming students a much richer and more self-realized presentation. I really do have to give myself snaps for how much better it went this year… *snaps*… And so now, I’m going to follow this long wind with a compendium of jiko shōkai tips, drawing upon both what worked and didn’t work as to give you a jiko shōkai jump start.
Side note: As you will soon discover, Japanese schools are woefully behind in their use of technology in the classroom, so my advice is geared towards those who are in school settings with essentially pre-Cambrian facilities. So if you happen to be among the lucky few who get projectors and internet access, make major use of them, friendo. Also, keep in mind that my experience is limited to teaching at the junior high school level, so you may have to adjust this jiko shōkai advice to fit the age groups you’re catering to.
Without further ado, my tips
1. Appeal to their senses
- Use lots of fun, funny pictures (deviate from clipart) and lots of colors. Don’t be shy about asking your fellow teachers if you can use the color printers or extra construction paper. They should be more than willing to oblige, especially if you explain that you need these materials for your self-introduction lesson. But if for some reason your teachers deny you the world of color, your nearest konbini should have a printer from which you can print pictures off a thumb drive and your local 100 yen (hyakuen) store should have construction paper.
- If you know you are going to be teaching classes with 40 kids or so, make sure to print the pictures really big, on A3-sized paper perhaps. Another useful hint is to get those sheets of sticky magnets (available at the hyakuen store) so you can stick your pictures on the blackboard. The effect is a mural of your life and loves right there where blackboard abyss once stared.
- Bring interesting things that they can touch and smell (if they want?), like currency, smaller photographs, albums, books, scrapbooks, menus, XL McDonalds’ cups etc.
- Perhaps you can burn a mix CD with your favorite artist. I brought a mix of songs by The White Stripes and my students found it much groovier than I expected. As an additional benefit, getting to listen to your favorite music may put the mellow on any lingering anxiety.
2. Find common ground
- Though the kids will be fascinated by what’s unique about you and your country/culture of origin, I’m of the mindset that it’s at least equally important to hit on those things that you have in common. Perhaps it diminishes your mystique a bit, but ultimately it makes you and your language more real to them.
- For example, my students went nuts when I told them that I like Spirited Away. Maybe you’re into Arashi or ONE PIECE, or really love nattō. Tell them your favorite Pokémon or kanji character… anything that bridges is gold.
3. Break up your intro
- When you give your intro speech, I don’t recommend barraging them with a deluge of words. Pause to ask them questions after you say something relatable. It serves the dual purpose of keeping things interesting by encouraging an interactive classroom and dovetailing the point about finding common ground.
- Example: “I like Spirited Away. Do you like Spirited Away? Raise your hand if you like Spirited Away. How about Ponyo? Who likes Ponyo? Etc. etc.
4. Make jokes
- Even if you can’t play nihongo well enough to weave a brilliant tapestry of jokes through wit and wordplay, daijoubu desu yo, I tell you what! Japanese humor can be very physical and that kind of comedy readily adapts itself to this kind of cross-cultural situation. Exaggerated gestures coupled with animated voices, though a little kitsch, can serve as some of the best tools of engagement.
- If your Japanese is still a bit rough, it can also be pretty funny/encouraging to try to say Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away) or any other difficult Japanese words, sentences, titles etc. Tripping up on Japanese words or pronunciation isn’t shameful or a sign of stupidity. In fact, it’s completely endearing and brave because you are trying to speak a very foreign language in spite of struggle. So, behind any laughter that your mistakes may rouse from your students, the message being reinforced is that it’s okay to make mistakes when learning a new language. Persevere by taking any linguistic blunders in stride and you will give your students the confidence to do the same.
- Alternatively, if your nihongo is of that jōzu stuff, it can be a chance to impress. You can be living proof that learning a foreign language isn’t impossible (though we should strive try to keep most of our lessons in English).
- At the same time, it could also be a nice chance to subtly introduce humor with more of a Western flavor, like sarcasm and irony (Oh, ye jaded occident!). For example, I told my students that my hobby is boxing and that I wanted to show them a picture of me in a match. So, I, with utmost gravitas, held up a picture from Muhammad Ali’s legendary fight against George Foreman; Ali tagged with my name. So, I mean I’m not gonna split stitches or knock anyone out with that one; still, got a few titters, smiles, amused double-takes.
- But if you really want to get them riled up, just tell them you like to eat nattō with your ice cream.
5. Provide an activity
- For my review activity this year, I opted for an easy, semi-humorous quiz. However, bingo using keywords from your introduction (America, Australia, spaghetti, tennis etc.) with a small prize representative of your part of the world can make things all the spicier (although, if you’re in a middle school, please remember you can’t give food to students).
- Other review activities could be two truths and a lie or, as an ego boost (or bust, potentially), have them draw you and write about/ draw some the things you talked about.
- In the end, it could be just as simple as getting them to ask you questions. I had my kids ask me easy questions (for ichinensei I allowed them to ask me in Japanese with my JTE acting as translator), and got a wide variety of inquiries. (Do you like sushi? What was the best moment in your life? How many babies do you want to have? Do you come to school by bike?).
6. Give incentives
- Maybe the school you’ve been placed in already has an incentive system that you can jump into. Mine already had a paper money system that allowed the students to save for an auction held at the end of each term. If yours doesn’t have one set up, ask your JTEs if you can start one because it does wonders for participation.
And so, at the end of all this, I want to say that the biggest oversight I made with my initial self-introduction was miscalculating the level my students were at, at the time. Well, in retrospect, I don’t think what I was saying was actually too hard for them. The real problem was that they weren’t confident in their comprehension abilities. So, if you provide them with ample context cues (music, pictures, etc.) it will reassure them that they do actually know what you are talking about.
Just remember, if upon your jikō shokai day the students meet you with all the unfathomable solemnity of Moai, I promise you that it’s not because they don’t like you, in fact, I’m absolutely certain that you fascinate them. They’re just being shy and are likely as nervous to make a good impression on you as you are them. The bottom line is to just be you and to be confident in yourself! I wish you the best of luck! All your students are so excited to know you! Ganbatte kudasai!