While the word “kaizen” (改善)just means “improvement,” I think it’s safe to say that most Americans, especially Detroiters, know “kaizen” as “the Toyota philosophy of continuous improvement,” to put it broadly. Of course, the concept was not invented by the Japanese nor is Toyota the only place that implements it, but, perhaps due to the failings of American industry in the recent era, when we think of competent, efficient manufacturing, perhaps we think of kaizen. (Wikipedia better explains it here, in the article for Training Within Industry, from which the Japanese implementation of kaizen developed.)

My teaser for this post was “Jaime Escalante minus English-only mentality + kaizen = what I’m shooting for in the new school year!” Now, allow me to explain.

Jaime Escalante Minus English-only Mentality

I first learned of Jaime Escalante through the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, which starred Edward James Olmos as the real-life dedicated high school math teacher Escalante. The long and short of both the movie and the real-life story is this:

1. New math teacher in a problem school decides to teach kids calculus

2. Nobody believes they will succeed

3. The kids pass the AP Calculus test

4. So everyone thinks they must have cheated

5. Kids take a harder version of the test and pass that too

While my kids, to my knowledge, aren’t dealing with things like gangs and teen pregnancy, they are at a low-level school. Besides the small handful of students that I know are dealing with almost crippling anxiety problems (though I don’t know if the percentage of such students is particularly higher at my school compared to the average, whatever that is), I think the biggest hurdle my kids face is that they expect too little from themselves, and some of the teachers seem to have low expectations for them.

I do believe that some people are just extremely averse to academic environments, and there’s no point in torturing such people with study. But others are just all too glad to lower themselves to what little is expected of them, especially when they don’t have enough foresight to understand that too much knowledge is hardly ever regrettable, but a lack thereof pretty much always is. So I’m going to try to be a little more like Jaime Escalante and believe that with hella hard work, even my kids, who have been damned to the label of “low-ranking” by the prefectural high school entrance exam, can be great at English as long as I expose them to a higher standard. The first step is to show how seriously I take the class.

To that end, I wrote a short syllabus in English and Japanese explicitly stating the expectations for the class, and introducing a very easy homework assignment. In the past, so I’ve been told, there was a homework assignment of writing one brief (3-4 sentences) English Journal a week, that only half the kids did in the beginning. Eventually, only 1 or 2 kids were doing it, and the ALTs gave up. I don’t know how much they tried to get the JTE’s and homeroom teachers to back them up on telling the kids to do their homework, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the teachers didn’t try very hard to get the kids to do it. So, instead of this assignment, my co-ALT and I came up with the idea of giving a few kids a question one week in advance, and the next week they’d have to present the answer to this simple question orally to the class. We’ll keep track of who was given a question, and give them one participation point when they present. If they don’t do it, well, my co-ALT was against giving them negative points, which at first I thought was a bad idea, but after seeing the kids’ reaction to the “you can never get a perfect score on the test without participation points” clause in the syllabus, I think they’ve understood that participation points matter. Plus, it amounts to one homework assignment the whole year, even though it’ll take the whole year to get through the 40 or 40+ kids in each class.

Now, one thing I don’t agree with Mr. Escalante on is the “English only” mentality. Of course, he was talking about English as a Second Language Learners, not English as a Foreign Language Learners. But as the Japanese government has demanded that future English classes be conducted entirely in English, I can’t help but wonder, if it’s not a good ideology for ESLs, how in the world will it work for EFLs? Well, in my opinion, it’s not a good idea when applied indiscriminately to all students. Again, some are just averse to learning, others are slow on the uptake. At my school, when I ask students to guess, they shake their heads furiously from side to side as if I were asking them to drown a bunny. How can students so opposed to guessing function in an English-only classroom?

Frankly, I think that’s a waste of time. There’s nothing wrong with giving the Japanese translations of key words, or explaining complicated culture notes in Japanese, when you only have 50 minutes a week with each homeroom and students who like to use English as an excuse to say “I don’t understand” and zone out. What’s more, I think it’s crucial for ALTs to demonstrate to the students that they’re at least trying to say something in Japanese. Now, maybe most students don’t think to themselves, “this person has a lot of gall coming up in here making me learn English while not speaking a word of Japanese,” maybe that’s just my personal experience as an immigrant in the States and being around the expectation that everyone speak English while the average American remained monolingual, but this too, is, I think, about setting a higher standard. If you’re satisfied remaining monolingual yourself, what right do you have to tell other people to be bilingual? For these reasons, I think it’s okay to use Japanese in the classroom.


Writing a syllabus was obviously a part of my kaizen because I wanted to set a higher standard. The other big project was to learn as many names as possible.

Last year there were a handful of kids who went the entire school year without ever participating orally in class. I know this because when they do, they are giving the aforementioned “participation points” in their “passports.” The “English Passport” was just a B5-size sheet of paper folded in half with their name on the outside and a grid for stickers on the inside. These stickers became points on the term-end tests. So, when we’re grading the last test of the school year and come to a passport with zero stickers in it, we know that student said nothing in class the whole year. One of the reasons these kids can lower themselves into the cracks and stay there, I think, is that we didn’t know all of their names. When we tried to call on random kids by calling out 出席番号 (shusseki bangou, a student’s number within that class as determined, at my school, by sex and kanji order), because we didn’t know what kid was what number, if the JTE didn’t immediately look in their grade book to back us up, the kids wouldn’t come forward.

So, to help learn all of their names, I changed the design of the passport, making it tri-fold so that it can stand and double as a name plate. Usually, we have the kids write their own names on the passports, but since we wanted to use them as nameplates, my co-ALT and I wrote them all out ourselves to ensure that the names were written in large enough letters. Also, I made sure to ask specifically for the class lists that the Japanese teachers use that have furigana. For one, I didn’t want to take up a JTE’s time having them type out the lists in romaji. Secondly, even JTE’s can be inconsistent about what system of romanization they use, though they’re not as bad about it as the students. What’s worse about asking the students to write their names in romaji is that they don’t seem to understand that when they write, for example, “Tukasa,” no English speaker who has never studied Japanese will ever say “Tsukasa,” which is what is intended. Even though I know that “tu” is an accepted romanization for つ, I still have to think for a minute so as not to end up saying what sounds like “your home” in Spanish if I see the name Tsukasa written as “Tukasa.” There’s also the matter of long vowels; for example, I don’t know how many Yuuki’s have laughed when we called them Yuki instead, despite the fact that they didn’t indicate that their name was Yuuki with either two U’s or a macron over the “u.” (I don’t get it: they think foreigners don’t know Japanese, but they seem to assume we would know Japanese names. *Scratching my head*)

A sample passport I made. The kids can either put purikura on it, or draw themselves in the picture space.

The inside of the passport, with some sample stickers. I like stickers myself, so I'll usually try to match the stickers we give out with the theme of the lesson, a touch neither of my male co-ALTs seemed to care too much about. ^_^; Click for the full size; there's some funny stickers there.

So, that was the passports. To continue the theme of trying to build a stronger one-on-one relationship with the students, the very first class, which had always been the ALTs’ self-intros, was instead used to go over the syllabus, then play name games in small groups. With 2 ALTs and one JTE in the classroom, it’s easy to split off into 3 groups and have a more manageable number of students.

How’s it working out?

We’ve had at least one class with every homeroom, and three homerooms have done the second class. I think that at least as far as learning their names goes, we’re doing better this year than we did last year. I’ve also had way more first years randomly greeting me in the hallways or on the way to school this April, so I think it helped to start up with those small groups. As for the higher standard…when I asked “did you do your homework?” the students all said “what?! what homework?!” as if it hadn’t been explained to them in English and Japanese both orally and in writing. ^_^; There haven’t been enough classes yet to really know whether having a custom syllabus will be good in the long-run, but I still have hope.

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