Monthly Archives: April 2017

Not Yet Able to do Those Things

One of my colleagues mentioned today how the start of the school year has put her off her hobbies and any productive use of her free time. She feels tired and uninspired and can’t even be bothered to binge watch TV shows.

This is actually a common feeling this time of year.

The start of the school year brings a certain amount of dread at the school where I work, especially for those of us with all three years of junior high school. We pore over class lists to see if old problems have carried over and we cringe when our colleagues lookat our class rolls and laugh and say “Well, better you than me.”

The other issue is that unlike a regular 9-5 job, which can allow you to fall into a monotonous rhythm from one fiscal year to the next, the start of the school year brings a new rhythm of breaks, planning sessions, and classes. Your old planning schedule is now lost and you may or may not get home at a regular time. You might have to get up earlier than last year or you might have a day with too much free time. (Yes, as I’ve mentioned before, this can be a problem.)

Also, because the grades, and therefore the ages of the students change, the new year has a much different vibe then the old one. In my case I have exactly the same grades as last year, but they are in a different pattern and I can already feel the differences from last year.

We’re also in the testing phase where students see what they can get away with and we spend a lot of energy convincing them that they can’t get away with much. But, tricks that worked with one class don’t work with any of the new ones, even when it’s many of the same students, and we spend a lot of energy trying new tricks.

I think part of the problem is that here in Japan there’s only a couple weeks between last school year and this school year and our heads are still stuck in last year. It’s easy to forget that everything has changed.

Eventually we settle into the new rhythm. For better and for worse.

The Best of the Worst

Today is brought to you by the number two. That’s because today all my classes where either second year high school or second year junior high school. By colossal coincidence, starting second period I taught two grade two high school classes and then two grade two junior high school classes.

The junior high school classes are the ones that worry me the most as they are the ones I can do the least about. I can make their lives unpleasant but only by making my life unpleasant.

That said, today’s classes were above average. The higher level class has a comedian who’s going to get lots of attention in the next couple weeks, but mostly they seem good. I’ll probably have to rearrange the seating chart at least once.

The lower level class consisted of the best of the students of the average students from my worst class last year.  (The best moved on to the higher level class.) They were in bad mode at first, and one student told me to speak Japanese. I told him why I wouldn’t.

By the end of the class they were doing work and being reasonably quiet. I don’t know if that will last, but I’m not dreading teaching them. Yet.

Wasting Your Parents’ Money

My bad student, and it’s bad that I know he’s bad in only the second class, was bad again today in his own special way and he had me thinking about something a friend used to say to his bad students.

He’d ask them “Why are you here? You’re just wasting your parents’ money.” That’s especially true at the school where I work as it is a fairly pricey private school. My bad student is definitely doing his best to waste his parents’ money.

First he did nothing and wrote nothing, which isn’t that unusual. What was unusual was that he wouldn’t work with fellow students, even when they were speaking Japanese to him. Instead he’s apparently decided that he can wait me out. And that might  work except for three small issues: 1) he’s a teenage boy which means he’s incapable of sitting still and doing nothing for 50 minutes; 2) I won’t let him sleep; and 3) this isn’t my first rodeo.

After doing nothing for a while, he finally lost patience. I had already told his partners to work without him and then we all just ignored him. I’m guessing he mostly wants the attention so that he can be a comedian.

He decided, once he lost patience, to put his head down and go to sleep. I woke him and he had a moment of attention getting by putting his head back down. Using my teacher ninja skills, I pulled his chair out from under him and told him to stand.

Instead he held the same pose as if the chair were still there and I just ignored him until his legs gave out (in about 10 seconds) and he stood up. I kept ignoring him until he sat down on the floor. At that point I laughed and suggested, in Japanese, that he clean up some of the dirt and trash that was down there. Then I continued ignoring him.

He didn’t go back to sleep, although he did put his English textbook under his butt as a cushion. He also remained in place as everyone left the room.

Next class, he’ll get to sit at the back. If he tries to sleep, I’ll take his chair again he’ll have to stand or get back on the floor. He doesn’t realize, of course, that he’s actually helping me. Although I can’t let him sleep as that sets a bad example, they way I treat him serves as a warning to other students. It also lets me play bad cop/ good cop with the entire class.

I’ll chat with his homeroom teacher about what to do, as I suspect mine isn’t the only class he does this in. My only hope, at this point, is that he’s one of those students who doesn’t write anything on his exams. (I’ve even had a student turn in an exam with nothing on it but glue.) Makes marking a lot easier, and I get some of his parent’s money no matter what.

Once Again With the Gumbo

Note: Yesterday’s video monetization issue has been resolved and the videos are once again monetized. I won’t link to them, though, as they suck. Also, it appears I made enough to have two dimes to rub together.

She Who Must Be Obeyed wanted the freezer cleaned out which meant that today I got to cook. Had, to, actually, as I was volunteered with a “You’re cooking gumbo tomorrow, right?”

It all worked out well, though, as I was able to take a slightly different approach. For example, I cut the sausage differently (long story). I also had the joy of starting without all the ingredients in the house. We also had our oldest out doing something, but with instructions to return by 8:30.

This time around I was able to fix my mistakes from the first time around. The roux was better and except for needing more salt, it all tasted good. I also had orders to make it more like curry and less like soup. There was also the issue of there being no onions in the house, which meant I started cooking without all the proper ingredients present.

Now I have to decide if I want to order more sausage from Hokkaido. I probably will, as there are a few things I’d like to try. (More on that in a future post.)


Premature Demonetization

I haven’t been making any money and now it appears I probably never will.

A few years back, for no reason whatsoever, before I started this bit of blather, in fact, I started posting knife related videos on YouTube. The most popular two are summaries of Japan’s complicated knife laws and are at least as accurate as the predictions of the so-called main stream media in the last US presidential election.

Because I don’t put out regular content, the channel never got any traction. Just in case, I chose to monetize the videos.

However, after recent changes in YouTube’s advertisement policies, none of the knife related videos are eligible for monetization. Granted, one of the videos has clips of knife related crimes and a couple of them have bad language, but they’re not particularly political. (Well, one of them has its moments.)

I’ll appeal to YouTube and see if I can reinstate things on the Japan knife law videos but I’m not optimistic. Again, I’m not losing any money, just potential.

Of course, I could learn to play computer games or learn to put on make up and must make videos about those. Those don’t seem to have any monetization troubles.

The Occasional Surprise of First Impressions

I’m not sure if he’s a little off or just spoiled, but he surprised me and after seventeen years at the school where I work (and 27 years of teaching) that’s hard to do.

At the school where I work junior high school first year students are, for the first term, divided by number. For the second term they are divided by ability. Sort of. Long story. The first term is thus spent figuring out who will stay in higher level classes and who will drop. Whatever happens, the first term is usually when the students are at their best.

Not today.

Today, in my second period class, most of my students were late. This is normal as it’s probably their first class in the high school building and it takes them a while to find the room. Two students arrived especially late and as I explained that the first row was empty to accommodate bad students, several students recommended that one student, let’s call him Mr. Dramatica, should go ahead and move to the front row.

I stopped everyone from teasing him and then assigned everyone a short speech after explaining, in sloppy Japanese, that it was my way to test the ability of the class.

When the speeches were ready, I was pleased to see several students volunteer, but as the volunteerism faded, so did the English ability. Mr. Dramatica, when he was called on, refused to do his speech. Several students encouraged him but that merely put him in full panic mode.

Later, when there was no one else left to give a speech except him, he went into full Seriously Obnoxious Brat mode, which might work with his parents but didn’t work with me. He whined and shouted and wondered why they had to do this on the first day when they hadn’t studied English yet. Then he started crying. At this point, the rest of the class turned on him and he put his head down. When I continued to insist he do the speech, he went into full drama queen mode: he went up front, dropped to his knees and did dogeza.

I let him stay there and, since I was at the back of the room, had all the students look at me and away from him as I explained some class rules. Eventually he went back to his chair and put his head down.

At the end of class he kept his head down and I chased all the other students out. I got him to look up and told him to do his speech just for me. He repeated, in Japanese of course, that he couldn’t, and when I assured him he could he started beating the desk and saying “I can’t, I can’t” and put his head back down. I turned off the room lights and left him there pondering how in seventeen years of teaching junior high school first year, no one had ever before refused to do the first assignment.

Later, I approached Mr. Dramatica’s homeroom teacher who seemed to know who I was going to talk about as soon as I walked in the room. He even asked if Mr. Dramatica had cried.

I suspect this student will eventually end up as a phantom who only shows up to take exams. If he doesn’t, it could be an interesting term for me, and an interesting rest of the year for my counter part who will be teaching the lower level students starting next term.

The Five Tiers of Worstness

All worst high school students are the same, but the worst junior high school students are worst in their own unique ways.

The worst high school students are either loud or sleepy. That’s pretty much it because in high school in Japan students can fail and, in theory, it’s okay for you to remove them from the class.

Junior high school students in Japan, however, cannot fail and private schools won’t expel them so their worstness comes in tiers.

Fifth Tier: The Sleepers
If they are not asleep when you walk in class–and they will not wake up easily if this is true–they will put their heads down as soon as they reach their seats. They do not have books, paper or any kind of writing utensil and will not understand why you think such things are necessary. They will take personal offense at being woken up.

The worst of the sleepers (and this applies to high school) are asleep in the wrong class, wake up half way through, and then groggily collect their stuff and go to their proper classes.

Note: I always confirm the students are actually breathing before letting them sleep.

Note the Second: If a student wasn’t breathing, I’d probably ignore that until the end of class in order to make it another teacher’s problem and avoid any paperwork.

Fourth Tier: The Finnishers
These worst give up easily. They will ask you to speak Japanese (even after you speak Japanese to them) and they will refuse to open a dictionary even when you plop one on their desk. They will look at an assignment and sheepishly stare around hoping someone close by finishes the assignment. If necessary, they will roam the room in search of people with the answers.

If they have a textbook, it is probably one stolen from another student’s locker which means there’s a student in another class losing points for not having a textbook.

When Finnishers decide they’ve done enough classwork–even if they’ve done nothing at all–they say “I’m Finnish” and your best efforts to correct them will always fail.

Third Tier: The Obnoxious Brats
These are Finnishers with attitude. They will not do an assignment even if you explain it to them in Japanese. When you try to explain they will smile and nod at you in ways that indicate they have ears but will not hear.

They have pristine textbooks because they have never written in them. Or they have a textbook from another student. If the answers are already written in the purloined book, the book will be passed around the class for others to copy.

Second Tier: The Seriously Obnoxious Brats
These SOBs have, in many cases, never heard the word “No.” They are not used to doing things they don’t want to do and don’t understand why techniques they use on their parents not only don’t work on you but often result in homework.

They have pristine books stolen from other students in their class and when you try to explain an assignment they will laugh and make faces back at you.

They will sit at the back and talk the entire class. They will lie down on the floor. When you speak in class they will parrot every word you say without actually understanding anything you’re saying.

First Tier: The Right Little Shits
The Right Little Shits are hostile, in-your-face bad. They will do every trick they know to make you angry and if you ever do get angry they will push those buttons again and again and again and try to get other students to push them. If you get angry again, they will laugh.

They walk in late, even if they know it will get them in trouble–actually, they walk in late because they know it will get them trouble–and will make a joke out of it. Their goal is to perform for the rest of the class.

They use bad words (in English and Japanese) and will mock your attempts to discipline them.

In most cases, they are fairly smart, but never as smart as they think they are. Most end up in lower level classes and are refused admittance to high, or they are admitted and fail their first year in high school.

In all my years at the school where I work I’ve taught a lot of SOBs but only a handful of right little shits. One I gave a negative class mark to just to attract attention to how bad he was and how he shouldn’t be allowed in high school.

Some matured when they got to high school, because suddenly they could fail and there were enough new students they suddenly weren’t cool, but a few did not. The one I gave a negative score to failed out of high school after one year.

First Day in Front

Wednesday’s going to be a long day, and it appears it’s going to finish badly.

Today was the first day of classes and after stumbling through, and modifying on the fly, a new class diary system that lets me use a bunch of old notebooks (more on that in a future post) I actually had to stand in front of students.

This involved me lying to some students (part of the lesson) and then letting them lie about each other. In the last class, though, I just let them talk about themselves.

The first two classes are junior high school third year (US 9th grade) and they’ve already figured out the scam (Hey! We CAN’T fail.) The lowest level class has a few bad students from past classes but, except for seeing the fault lines, I’m not that worried about a major quake.

The sixth period class is a junior high second year class and they think they are cool for having survived their first year. Three of my Second Tier worst students (long story) are there including two who used to be in the higher level class and one of my First Tier worst students, who also used to be in a higher level class.

It will be a challenging class, but I’ve started to follow the Japanese tradition of having students stand up at the beginning and end of the class. That will be followed by them being silent while I talk or they won’t get to leave. I’ve done this before and I like it because it gives the class a clear starting point (most students treat the bell as a suggestion) which means they can’t just meander in as they feel like it.

Because the class is last period I also have a lot of ways to apply negative motivation, especially because I’m willing to stay late after school with them if need be. If the class ends up being tolerable, it will be because of that.


Monokaki Pocket Notebook–End of Book Review

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: There’s this really cool notebook that claims that it’s the notebook of Nobel Prize winning writers.

Although the way a  famous notebook brand uses this story is somewhat dodgy (and is most accurately described as “famous people used a notebook that looked kind of like this”) in the case of Masuya’s Motokaki notebook, there appears to be some truth to the story. The notebook was, as near as I can find, made in 1939 for Fumio Niwa, author of The Buddha Tree. Since then it’s been used by other Japanese writers.

Note: Please keep in mind that none of this impresses me. In fact, when I learned about the story behind the more famous notebook, I felt kind of sad, as if I’d been duped, even though I hadn’t read the story beforehand.

Two Monokaki Pocket Notebooks. The one being reviewed is the one on the right.

The Monokaki Pocket Notebook I used was terrific. It is one of the most fountain pen friendly notebooks I’ve ever used.

The notebook contains 128 pages of Masuya’s cream colored, acid free Kotobukiya paper. I used the version with a light grid, but it also comes in blank and ruled versions. The off-white cover is made of thick Japanese washi paper with a woodblock print inspired pattern designed by Ryo Takagi. The end pages are black (charcoal gray?) paper and help add some support to the notebook when you’re holding it in your hand as you write.

Detail of the fountain pen and ink bottle on the cover. Also, detail of the wear on the spine.

At 140 mm (5.5 inches) tall and 85 mm (3.35 inches) wide the notebook is roughly the same length as a Field Notes Notebook, but slightly narrower. Because it’s made of eight sewn signatures, it lays flat when it’s open, which is not true of many smaller perfect bound notebooks.

Detail of the end pages and the notebook’s construction. If you zoom you can see the individual signatures.

Although the paper is thin, it handles fountain pens extremely well. There is a lot of show through, which might bother some people, but very little bleed. In fact, the only ink that bled consistently was Wancher Matcha, which is always a heartbreaker. It breaks hearts.

Wancher Matcha bleeding through the page. It is a heartbreaker. It breaks hearts. Also, nice detail of the grid pattern.

The only real complaint I have with the notebook is more a matter of taste than a problem. As a rule, I don’t like solid grids on notebook pages as they break up the lines. Yeah, you have to look fairly close, sometimes, to notice, but it bothers me. Ruled pages I don’t mind as much because I don’t have to cross the lines, but I prefer blank pages in small notebooks. (Actually, in all notebooks, but more on that in a future post.)

The Monokaki Pocket Notebook has entered my top five pocket notebooks. I have a blank version yet to use, and I may bump it forward in my notebook queue.



Giving Away the Old But Still New

At first they laughed. Then they took the notebooks. It solved problems for all of us.

Over a decade ago an online stationery shop I used on occasion went out of business when the owner graduated from school, got a “real” job, and no longer had time to dedicate to the business.

(Note: I cannot, for the life of me, remember the name of the shop, nor can I find any old links to it.)

Before the site shut down, though, the owner dumped the last of her inventory at surprisingly good prices. Because of this huge discount, I managed to acquire four large Moleskine notebooks (three lined, one blank) for around the price of one and a half Moleskine notebooks in Japan.

However, because I already had one notebook in use, and another in my notebook queue (oh, like you don’t have one) the four notebooks got stuffed into a drawer. Where they remained, still sealed in plastic, for over a decade.

In fact, if I’m remember the timing correctly, I may have got those four notebooks before we got our youngest daughter.

During yesterday’s office cleaning I pulled the four notebooks out of the drawer and looked them over. They looked to be in good shape with no obvious signs of mold or age. Because they are older Moleskine notebooks, they still have reasonably decent paper compared to more contemporary versions. I thought about keeping them, but then quickly decided to give them away as I no longer use large notebooks. (Instead I use a large number of small notebooks.)

As I have with Field Notes notebooks, I took them to school. With the Field Notes notebooks, I gave limited editions to my fellow foreign staff and left the craft cover versions in the main teachers’ office where they quickly disappeared. With the Moleskines, though, I walked around the English department repeating “free notebooks, really cheap, free notebooks, really cheap, take all you want.”

At first everyone who saw them laughed and then went “really?” I explained how they hadn’t cost me that much and how I’d never use them and wanted to get them into the hands of people who would use them.

I quickly passed out all four to Japanese teachers of various ages and watched as, for the first time in over a decade, the plastic wrap was removed and the notebooks were put to use.

It was oddly satisfying, especially as I now have room for more notebooks which, I realize, kind of defeats the point of giving some away.