I’ve just returned from a most amazing trip to Japan. I visit usually once a year, to visit my wife’s family, and my friends there, sightsee, and enjoy the great hospitality of Japan. This trip however, also included something I’ve never done before. It took a lot of planning, but I paid a surprise visit to the students of Skata Minami High School in Yamagata.
Over the past year, I have been enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Sakata Minami. They helped me produce ENGLISH WEIRDNESS, in exchange for their licensing its use as part of their curriculum. When each episode is released, the students of Sakata watch the video, discuss it in class, and then together we follow up with an online class in which the students and I meet online using internet video conferencing. They ask me questions, and I help them understand the English at work in the video.
Our online classes are always interesting and always fun. The first time we met, the students were tentative, and hesitated to speak English with me. But with each meeting, they grew more confident and more eager to ask me questions, try their English, and learn from interacting with a native-speaking English teacher, me. in other words, I think the students grew more confident as they grew more comfortable with me.
They probably never expected that we’d meet in person. But this is exactly what we did. On Thursday morning, February 20, 2020, the students opened their laptops in class, expecting that we would meet online, as it was our scheduled time. They had no idea, that behind the scenes, their Principal, Ms. Hiroko Nakahara, and I, with the complicity of the class teacher, Ms. Honma and special advisor, Mr. Yokose, had been planning my visit.
The trip from where I was staying at my wife’s family home outside Nagoya, in central Japan, to where the school was located in northwestern Japan, was long and involved trains, buses, and a long ride on the Shinkansen (bullet train). It would prove to be well worth it though.
When the students tried to connect with me online as usual, they found that I was not on the other end of our usual internet connection. From their desks, facing the large monitor they usually observed me on, it must have appeared that something had gone wrong with our connection, or our scheduled meeting….we had had some technical challenges in the past. That’s when Nakahara-sensei entered the room with me, and said, “Hi, Teacher Paul!”
The students spun around in their seats. I will never forget the astonished look on their faces as they saw me in person for the first time. Prior to that moment, I had been nothing more than a two-dimensional image they had only ever seen in English Weirdness, or our regular online classes. There I was, standing before them. It was hilarious to say the least.
Once the shock of seeing me subsided, there were laughs and giggles, and lots of chatter. We then moved to a large conference table, and brought in some whiteboards, and I did an impromptu class with them. For three hours, the students asked me questions, and I answered them using the whiteboard. Our topics often began, as they tend to in all my classes, with a simple grammar question, but ranged off into tangents of history, culture, philosophy and psychology. They took notes and seemed eager to absorb everything they could.
After the class, we shared lunch together, took photos and selfies, and then the students went off to work on their hobbies, projects and school activities. For the rest of the afternoon, Nakahara-sensei took my wife and I around Sakata City and showed us some amazing sites, including a tea house and Maiko (apprentice geisha) performance, a museum of Takehisa Yumeji’s paintings, and another museum that held the collected works of photographer Domon Ken.
Later that evening, we were joined by our co-conspirators, Yokose-sensei, Hanma-sensei, and Sugaya-sensei for an amazing dinner at an restaurant outside the city that has been serving its special type of BBQ skewered dishes for over 160 years. Coincidentally, there, with no planning involved, we met one of the students, Michiru-san, and her family, who were also there for dinner. They must have been as surprised to see us there as I was to see them. Our chance meeting added to the special level of astonishment the whole day was infused with.
The following day, my wife and I continued on our travels, and headed off to Tokyo. it was an amazing visit to Sakata. Not only was it a beautiful part of Japan I had never seen before, the chance to meet these young students with whom I have been working was very special. In person, it was clear that their English had improved a great deal, owing perhaps in part to our meetings, but mostly to the school’s unique Global Class program, spearheaded by their innovative principal, Nakahara-Sensei.
And, there is another satisfying outcome of my visit. The school and I confirmed a new agreement to maintain and expand our relationship. I will continue working with this inaugural Global Class group this coming year, as well as a new, incoming group. It’s all very exciting, and I’m extremely grateful for this partnership. it’s a great honour to work with these diligent students, and their teachers and advisors. And thank you, Nakahara-sensei, for being such an inspiring leader, educator, and friend. Both your students and appreciate everything you’ve done for us. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to participate in your amazing program.