In the structured setting of a high school, it is easy for English language lessons to be confined to classrooms and formal learning. However, I believe that everyday conversations and the rapport you build with your students outside of the lesson time is just as important and educational.
Since September 2017, I have been teaching English as a foreign language at a private school for girls in Tokyo. My school makes a conscious effort to weave English language into the fabric of school culture that promotes English speaking outside of the classrooms. Let me share a few with you.
At my school in Tokyo, we have an English club that meets twice a week after school where students take the initiative to decide on what they’d like to do while teachers take a backseat. It is the club captain who discusses with the rest of the group what activities they want to try while teachers support and assist the students to make it happen. Activities could be trying out new games, watching English films and most recently, creating English games and props for our school festival.
This is an opportunity for students to converse freely with each other and also with teachers, including myself, who are native English speakers. It allows them to enhance their English communication skills for real-life everyday conversation instead of confining their English exposure to book learning and grammar memorisation. The students love talking about their music preferences, they are super fans of Korean-pop groups.
Interacting with teachers on an equal footing in a relaxed environment really helps to break down the barriers and even some of my quietest students come to life and converse with us.
Our English café is modestly decked out with café style tables and chairs, a pretty decent coffee vending machine and a good collection of English literature on the shelves. It serves to be a casual space where students can come and have English conversations during lunch times. This is an extra opportunity for them to practice conversational English and we also help them with their homework or other English related work.
A lot of students who are not members of the English club visit the café at lunchtimes to talk to us and we learn more about our students on a personal level.
As I begin to understand my students on an emotional level, it also encourages me to push myself as a teacher to develop activities during English classes that give my students opportunities to show off their individual characters without deviating away from the curriculum.
For example, my successful activities included students working in groups to design fashion outfits that best described who they are, and design their ideal home with special features that suits their hobbies. Students would then present their work to the rest of the class using key phrases learned during the lesson.
A lot of my lunchtimes are also spent with students in their homerooms, which are equivalent to form rooms in the UK. Here in Japan, students eat lunches in their homerooms with their homeroom teacher (form tutor) and their bento boxes are pieces of artisanal craftsmanship. Rice, vegetables and meat are delicately prepared and arranged in divided segments of the bento boxes. Healthy miso soup and fruits often feature in their lunches.
While I sit and eat with the students, I have a great time conversing with them and we’d talk about what school lunchtimes are like in British schools and the differences between British and Japanese schools. They enjoy hearing about Western culture and comparing themselves to British students of their age. Learning English isn’t only about learning to speak a language, it’s also about understanding a culture. When you are the only foreigner for students to communicate with on a regular basis, you are sometimes seen as a cultural ambassador of the country where you’re from, so it’s a great time for us teachers to also bring more of our culture and personalities into the students’ learning experiences.
While some of these activities might not be suitable for the school you’re teaching in, I do hope it has somewhat inspired you to think of other ways to communicate and connect with your students outside of classroom teaching.
Huan Yang-Williams teaches English as an additional language at a private school in Tokyo, Japan