“Sempai” Power

“Sempai” means one’s senior. The effect seniors have on juniors seems to be much greater than anything we measely teachers could ever hope for.

The other day I was thinking about two things that eventually led to a very good lesson with my Ko III (grade 12) Oral English class:

1. A famous teacher in Japan, Tajiri Sensei, tells the story of not being able to connect with a particular chu 2 (grade 8) class. Having tried all his regular tricks, they still wouldn’t respond or make an effort. He wanted to somehow show them what they could do if they put their minds to it. He realized that the best way to show them was to actually show them – so he brought in a video he had of the previous year’s class. Instantly, students understood what he had been trying to tell them for so long.

2. Marco Polo wrote about lesson objectives and got me thinking. I realized that too often we bring exercises or activities into class that have no immediate, specific objective (beyond “learning” English). Students recognize this almost immediately and sometimes confirm their lack of immediate interest in the lesson by forgetting the lesson print on the desk after class, or losing it by the following week. I confess that I sometimes don’t know the specific objective of what I’m asking students to do. I can clearly tell you what the activity will focus on, but have no clue what the immediate objective is nor whether the objective has been met or not.

So… back to the very good lesson. Here’s what we did:

Objectives: Show students (Ss) what we expect from them in their 1st Final speech test. Show them how good last year’s class was because of the efforts they made. Get Ss thinking about the topics for the Final test. Practice speaking to one another. Focus on form while writing speech ideas.

With such clear specific goals, it was so much easier than usual to get them settled down and focused on what they had to do. There was a clear sense of purpose in what they were doing and a recognition of the value in what they were doing. We asked them to:

  1. Watch video clips of 5 Ss from last year doing the Final test.
  2. Take notes on both the speech contents and the presentation skills of the speakers.
  3. Compare notes with their partner.

We then handed out a list of about 20 topics for the speech. The theme of the speech was “What are the good points and bad points of ______?” Some of the topics included: studying English, cell phones, our school, living abroad, having children, marriage, the internet, TV, school uniforms, long hair, Japan’s future, etc., (there is something for everyone).

Seeing that they were interested and clearly had a feeling for what was expected, we put them into a pairwork activity in which they had to pick a topic and see what they could come up with on the spot. There were about 26 Ss in class and so about 13 Ss stood up and talked to their partners at the same time. We were able to do this for a couple of rounds until the end of the first period.

Sensing they were still “into” what we were doing, we decided to keep them together for the second period as well (they normally study separately). In the second period we had them choose a new topic (one topic per student on a first-come, first served basis) and they began to sketch out some ideas. They also had a chance to collaborate with a partner to brainstorm more ideas. Once they had a bunch of ideas, we asked them to start writing them out in a “grammatically communicative” way. We circulated and helped individuals with problems that came up as well as with “mistakes” we noticed.

At the end of the lesson, there was a general feeling of having “put in a good days’ work” and having done something entirely meaningful. I noted this very clear feeling from many perspectives and hope to be able to re-create it again in the near future.

Thanks again to Tajiri sensei and Marco Polo for their invaluable combined inspiration.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s