By Hyuga Higuchi

The inspiration for this post

Fellow hardworking English teachers across Japan! Greetings!

So, early last week I was asked by a colleague of mine to sub one of his special “exchange program prep” classes at the university he works at. He gave me a brief description of what his class was like, showed me a student roster, told me briefly about his students and how their levels are different and mismatched within the class, how them students come from different faculties and basically have little to no connection with one another. He went on to tell me how most of them either sleep, or simply look at their cell-phones all the time during the class, how many of them just want to enjoy the experience of going abroad rather than learning English…you know, the usual problems ESOL teachers face when teaching students that were simply brought together for a short, non-credited, course.

無題I carefully listened to him, took notes on what he was telling me, asked about students that he thought were problematic, and tried to absorb as much as I could in order to face the challenge of trying to give these kids an unforgettable sub-lesson on class day.

A few days go by and the time to teach these students finally arrived. I did my usual set up: got the lesson ready on a power-point projector; had background musing playing; got over some jikko-shoukai with them to have them get to know each other; had a few ice-breaking activities and BOOM! I had all students communicating in (basic) English with each other. We have a fantastic, high-energy, lesson and all students high-fived me before leaving the classroom: “Are you teaching us next Thursday too?” some of them asked with bright smiles on. “Who knows, maybe if my friend, ‘teacher B’ (let me call him teacher B for the sake of this writing), can’t come again next week…maybe?” I responded trying to avoid negativity (in the form of a “no” answer) after having an amazing lesson with these great group of students. Next thing you know, we parted ways as I wrapped up the classroom and did my usual post-class meditation, pondering about some of the pros and cons of the lesson that day.

A few more days go by, I get a LINE-call from teacher B—who is a talented Australian ESOL instructor by the way—that goes along the lines, “Bro! What did you do to my students? They are all friendly now! They are talking with one another a lot more than before…anyways, what is your secret? Please don’t tell me is only your Brazilian charm” “Hahaha…” I burst laughing, “of course it’s ‘cuz of my Brazilian charm. What are you talking about?”

“Come on, tell me, seriously, how did you do it?” He insisted.

“All right, I will let in it but, only through my blog,” I said. “If I can share some classroom management ideas with you, why not make it ‘open-source’ and share it with all other teachers out there as well?”

Hence, the inspiration for this blog entry. Here are some of my tips for unraveling the true energy potential of your ESOL university classroom.IMG_4104

The Rationale: why did I decide to transform my classroom into a more “entertaining” environment?

Many of the ESOL teachers I meet in Japan are frustrated when it comes to teaching English at the tertiary level here. Reasons being some of the ones mentioned above and:

  1. University students in Japan are very different than university students in Western universities. Most of them go to university as part of a “life-stage:” “all Japanese people go to university, and so should you!” Type of mindset permeates academia in Japan—especially when it comes to the humanities. Thus, most students do not attend university to acquire the skill they need in order to perform the job of their dreams…they do it out of social duty toward their family and the community around them. Furthermore, until very recently, most companies in Japan were hiring based on the rank of the university their employees-to-be attended, not based on the type of degree they had acquired. This meant that you could become a manager of stock-brokerage at the Sumitomo brokerage firm by graduating with a history degree from Waseda University. Looking at college education from this perspective, in turn, can easily generate students who are passionless about their studies—who attend college with the only intent of taking a break before the hard “salaried work life” begins (things have been changing rapidly in recent years and I do plan to write comprehensively on current tertiary education trends in Japan—please stay put for that).
  2. Institutions tend to spend little time investing in their ESOL programs. Courses have very little, to no stream-lining, which creates a lot of difficulty in tracking students’ level of progress during the first 4 semesters of required ESOL education that most university students must compulsorily take in Japan. This leads to not only the “mismatched” levels of English in the same classroom I mentioned above: it also causes students to lose interest in the monitoring of their own progress. Besides TOEIC standardized testing, Universities do very little in terms of giving their students a clear outline of the ESOL goals students must aim for while in college—leading to further lack of motivation in the study of the English language.
  3. Japanese students have mostly been battered with drills on how to “dissect” the English grammar, translate it, and memorize it since (at least) their very first year of Junior high. By the time they get to university they either: 1. hate English to death for all the horrible experiences they had with it in the past; 2. want to learn how to TALK in English and have very little concern for conducting grammar related exercises, listening, reading and any other “book-focused” activity.
  4. A college classroom in which your students are not engaging with the lesson content is, in plain and simple terms, a horrible place to be. I am sure some of you have already experienced (just as I did), the horrors of having to constantly tell students to pay attention, to stop looking at their smart-phones, to wake up and so on. I strongly believe it is much better to have a classroom that might be a little unconventionally loud, but in which the students are excited to be a part of, rather than the former.

For these reasons, it became very clear that Japanese University students need all the motivation they can if they are to generally enjoy their experience in the college ESOL classroom. If you think your classroom could get an energy boost from some of the following ideas, why not give them a try?

The environmental changes: it all starts with the right atmosphere

Have you ever thought about the kind of environments that are used by stores we often go to promote an atmosphere that facilitates communication and comfortability? Think of your favorite coffee shop, for instance. Have you noticed how the seating is set up within that coffee shop? How about the musing playing? Doesn’t it make you feel at ease to build a conversation with that right person of interest just by being seated in a locality like that?

The “environmental” suggestions I have to offer pretty much follow this same “Starbucks-like” model: focus on creating an atmosphere that facilitates people interaction—use lights, music, media, food, everything you have at your disposal to make your classroom more conversation/discussion/debate friendly!

It sounds more difficult than it actually is. Just follow some of the steps below and you IMG_0585will have the right ambiance within your ESOL classroom in no time:

I. Greet your students with a bright smile!

A bit of a cliché, but it is extremely important to have a very strong first impression on your students. I would hate to go to Starbucks if the Senoritas at the counter would greet me with a frowny face and tired look—and yes, this rule also applies when you are teaching that 5th-period class followed by the 4 others you had before it.

II. Have yourself a pc with some “party” music playlist ready!

You know what they say, “a little party never killed nobody…” And NO, this does not mean that there has to be any dancing or singing at the classroom—this is not the set up for a High School Musical movie, it is still an accredited college class. What is meant by this entry is that you could use your laptop as the entertainment center of the classroom, as well as its knowledge base. I already had some music from iTunes ready on my machine, all I needed to do was to hook up the right cables to the classroom’s PA system and, voila! I had myself and entertainment center ready to go! From my PC I can have either PowerPoint, videos, as well as all sorts of music for all sorts of moods thanks to YouTube!

You might be thinking, “but I don’t have a laptop…how do you suppose I get started?” Not to worry, when I started I did not have a laptop either. I had a USB with all that information and I would usually borrow the school’s laptop and use that as my entertainment center (nowadays with cloud services such as OneDrive, you can have your classroom with you anywhere you are by just having access to the internet). I also always requested for rooms that have this sort of technology hooked up to them (most universities in Japan have these—I have thought in 7 different universities and all of them had a room or 2 with this kind of technology available). So, all it takes is a bit of effort and creativity to create the classroom atmosphere of your dreams.

As for music selection—I have tried a bit of everything. I have tried “Bossa Nova,” instrumental rock, classic, straight out hip-hop and rave music, “epic music (featured on youtube in channels like Pandora Journey @,” game music, etc.: Anything that would fit a particular mood I wanted to create during a particular activity within a particular class. Use your creativity, know your students and selecting music that fits your classroom should come naturally.

Oh, and here is the last piece of advice concerning music: avoid things that are overly popular or mainstream at the moment—it will get your students to focus on listening/singing to it and take their attention from the class entirely.DSC_1094

III. Use PowerPoint and videos in class for both information and décor

Just as mentioned above, go wild on visuals! I usually have a PowerPoint with the entire lesson plan and PLENTY of discussion questions to be used for the particular class we are having. Usually, my ESOL classes are thematic and based on each weekly theme we will have a different Ppt ready. If you use a textbook, you can still have some extra discussion questions, vocabulary or a grammar point ready on the Ppt. Your students will be more willing to take in grammar presented to them that way.

I will wrap this post right here because it is getting a bit too long. I have plenty of more classroom environment hacks and will be posting them soon. Stay put until the next post!

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