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Events and Activities of the Last Year: A Recap

I’ve been continually putting off writing another blog entry over the past few months. Partly as I’ve got used to the job here, so feel less inclined to reflect on the experiences (turns out my 20th tea party was fairly similar to my 2nd tea party!). Also, we’ve been extremely busy here at YIFA since last summer, with the usual guest teacher visits, Halloween Party, as well as a range of other things which left me without too much time to write on here. I do have a bit of time as the year comes to an end now, so I thought I’d come back to this blog to briefly record the various work and events we’ve been doing over the last few months. The last blog covered our ‘Japanese Culture in English’ event, so I’ll go back to last August and look back at all the key events and work we’ve done in the intervening period, in chronological order...

August: Summer English Club(s)

Last year’s inaugural event was quite a success, and, with a lot of interest in the event again, we decided to run it twice this year. Each club was over a 5-day period and for each club between 10-12 children aged 8-12 participated. The previous year I had opted for more of a classroom atmosphere, with direct teaching followed by group activities, and using reflection sheets etc for the students to take charge of their own learning. The classes were pretty good though the reception was a little mixed between the children themselves. Some seemed to want to study seriously, while some wanted to just have a fun time and practice English a bit. Therefore, I pretty much threw all last year’s prep out the window for this year! We still had some times of focussed learning, usually for the first half of the lesson, but after that I just brought some of my games (board games and card games) from home and we played together in groups. Some of my friends at YIFA came to help out on various days (Yuka, Joan, Susan, Carlie, Jennifer, Vanessa) so we were able to enjoy chatting in English a bit while playing too. We did a bit of arts and crafts on a couple of days too, decorating fans, which was well received. Altogether, it made for a nice and relaxed atmosphere and I think the kids enjoyed themselves as well as having a good chance to practice English too. We’re holding the same event this summer too, so I think I will keep to pretty much the same plan. It’s the kids’ summer holiday after all, so I would feel bad making them study too hard!

August: English Tea Parties

I had to check the photos to try and recall the tea parties from last summer! They tend to be quite similar in form—warm-up activity, followed by topic talk in groups—therefore don’t really necessitate too much in terms of reflection anymore. I do occasionally consider enlivening them with some new activity, but I didn't really think it’s necessary, as the real joy is meeting new people and just chatting informally. On that basis, I should endeavour to invite more and more different people to attend, both Japanese and foreign residents.

Anyway, looking back on these summer events, I remembered that a couple of them were a bit younger in nature, Vanessa came with her high school age son, and a Japanese high school student came just before he was to fly to America for a study abroad programme. They naturally talked about different sorts of topics, unusual for our normal tea parties. Usually, for example, the topic of music will result in people talking about classical or jazz music, but this time we had a discussion about the merits of artists like Tyler the Creator…The tea parties are always fun and I find it really interesting hearing about everyone’s lives and pasts. On this occasion though, it was quite refreshing to have a different and younger perspective!

Numbers coming to the tea parties are much lower than during my first year here, more due to covid than me being an awful host (or so I tell myself!). In many ways this makes for a more intimate and enjoyable atmosphere though, so I’m quite happy with how they’re going and genuinely look forward to holding them when they come around.

September-December: Guest Teacher Visits

Last year the education department took over the running of the programme in terms of contacting schools and receiving the request forms (which they just bring straight to our office!). They are still finding their feet I suppose, and for a range of reasons the first half of this year was very light on school and nursery visits (though a covid wave in April-May also will have had an effect for sure). From October though we started to go to various schools and nurseries, making a total of 15 visits in a two-month period. It is still a bit less than I would like; I feel that more could be done to increase the numbers, and hopefully that will happen next academic year.

That two-month period was a success though, and we were very active across the schools both in English classes and for classes relating to international understanding. Outstanding highlights of the second semester for me include, Mohamed (from Yemen) showing the children at Chuzu Elementary his native traditional attire (including decorative knife!), Julee (from Nepal) and myself playing cricket with the little ones at Yasu Nursery School, Miguel’s wonderful Bolivian music performances at different schools and nurseries (he graciously joined us six times over the course of the academic year), Yalcin (from Turkey) and Aniko (from Hungary) showing the friendship of their countries by performing a dance together at Chuzu Elementary, and, most of all, all the children’s faces as they met new people from far-flung places, and opened up their world a little bit more.

November: Halloween Party

Yes, that’s right, November! The general election fell on our originally intended date (October 31st), and as the community centre was to be used as a voting station, we therefore had to hastily rearrange our plans (i.e. hold it one week later!). It was a first for me to celebrate Halloween in November, but didn’t detract from the event at all, and, in fact, was a bit of a positive in giving us an extra week of preparation time.

The theme this year was ‘Super Mario World’ as it was supposedly the 40th anniversary of his first appearance (in the game, Donkey Kong, in case you’re entering a quiz anytime soon!). Thanks to super-volunteer and amazing artist Joan, along with Maki, we were able to make a whole range of Mario related decorations, from warp-pipes to piranha plants, and green shells to Peach Castle. The four separate rooms where the children were to do trick or treat were ostensibly Mario ‘levels’ this year (we prepared an Ocean Stage, a Volcano Stage, an Underground Stage, and a ‘boss’ Bowser Stage) where the kids had simple activities to do in order to receive coins and go ahead and do the trick or treat. Some of the rooms were simple enough to organise—throwing Yoshi Eggs through Bowser’s mouth for example—while some were a feat of artistry and engineering—see the obstacle course where the kids had to escape the Thwomps which would intermittently drop from the ceiling!

Either way, I could see the kids really enjoyed the trick-or-treat activity, and overall, the party was a big success from my perspective. I’m confident that everyone involved enjoyed preparing for it, and all had a great time on the day itself. Every element of the event special in its own way: from the opening performance, where our chairman, Yamamoto-san as Mario jumped over blocks and through warp-pipes to save Princess Peach from Bowser, to the entertainment, a local jump-rope dance collective, to the annual costume contest.

The only issue was not being able to eat together (for the second consecutive year). In my first year the potluck, where everyone brought their own homemade dishes from home was a huge part of the party, but, with Covid restrictions, we haven’t been able to hold any food-related events over the last two years. We have to be flexible in this pandemic of course, but, with the vaccination rate so high, and people wanting to get back to normality, I’m hopeful we’ll be able to enjoy food together at the next event.

November: Hiking Tour of Yasu

Our culture classes are for foreign residents to learn a little of Japanese culture, and in previous events we’ve learnt about rakugo, wadaiko drumming, calligraphy and flower arrangement. This hiking tour was our culture class for this year, and the aim was to show foreign residents the natural beauty and rich history of Yasu. We discussed the route in the office a lot, and did plenty of preparation and planning in terms of the historical information we would give to the participants, before finalizing it all after a practice hike in (the baking heat of) mid-September.

On the day around 20 people attended, including 10 foreign residents from various countries (Brazil, Myanmar, Vietnam, among others). We separated into two groups: one ‘Yasashii Japanese’ group which would be led by YIFA volunteer, Hayakawa-san, and one ‘English’ group to be led by myself. We walked an approximately 6-kilometre route from Mikami Shrine half way up Mt Mikami, before heading across to Mt Myokoji where we had a picnic for lunch (eating outside together is ok!), then down to the wonderful 800-year-old statue of Buddha carved into the mountain itself, the Magai-butsu.

The event was wonderful for many different reasons. It was refreshing to spend time in the beautiful natural setting, and interesting to see great historical spots. Most of all though it was a nice chance to meet some new people and enjoy chatting while getting some good exercise. This event got 10/10 across the board I think, and we are looking forward to holding a similar hiking event in November this year as well.

December: World Watching

As time goes on, and countries get ticked off the list, it becomes more and more difficult to find new countries to focus on in these World Watching seminars. Thankfully, Nanay-san, who has helped with our Guest Teacher programme a few times, agreed to present about her home country, Costa Rica. Having lived in Japan since she was a teenager, Nanay has fluent Japanese, and she has a wonderful skill in teaching and presenting as well. I have seen this ability on our visits to junior high schools where she has introduced her country and talked about discrimination and human rights, and I was eager for her to teach at a world watching seminar if she was able to. I helped to make the original PowerPoint, from which she talked interestingly and engagingly about the geography, history and food of Costa Rica. It’s not a country anyone knew much about I think, save its location in Latin America. I’m sure the biggest impression most people got was of the dramatic natural beauty of the country, and many people said they really wanted to visit in the future. In the pandemic it’s impossible of course, but it’s nice to dream, and Nanay’s seminar let us all dream for a couple of hours!

January: Fire Station Tour

Into the new year and mid-way through January we had another new event to enjoy. This event took place at the fire station in Yasu, and had two main aims: firstly, to give important information to foreign residents (particularly non-Japanese speakers) in terms of what to do in times of emergency, and secondly, to let foreign residents see the facilities they have at a Japanese fire station. Probably due to the nature of this event, many families with small boys attended, and it became something of a children’s event! The kids all looked like they had a great time though, and learned how to use a fire extinguisher, a hose, and have a try on the earthquake simulator as well. The firefighters who gave their time to us that afternoon were extremely kind and good with the little ones, and we got great feedback from all concerned.

Not for the first time, this event was covered on a local digital TV station (ZTV), and they interviewed various participants after the event for use on their news show. My children even stepped up for a couple of interviews as well!

January: Online English Salon

Yet another new event we tried this year! Faced with the pandemic, and needing to think of new ways of staying active and engaged with the local community, we are open to all ideas now. One of our YIFA members raised the idea of trying an online English salon, with a view of potentially holding it on a regular basis from the next year (i.e. from April). Set up as a free event, aimed at encouraging new members, we anticipated a huge amount of interest, even going as far as to agree to a lottery in the case that we received more than the allotted number of 8 applicants. In the end there wasn’t a great deal of interest at all! I suppose to have the confidence to speak in a group setting on Zoom, you have to have a quite high level of English skill, and of the 4 people who joined the event, they were all certainly very fluent and confident with English.

The event was enjoyable for me. I tried to use it as a genuine ‘test event’, so tried to use the different functions, such as breakout rooms, as much as possible. I also tried to take advantage of the fact that everyone (apart from myself) was in their own home, so asked the participants to do a show-and-tell type activity where they showed something special to them, or something they bought recently that made them happy, and talk about it a bit. That was a really nice activity actually thinking back to it now, and the time we spent chatting together was a really nice time. Aside from the predictable technological issues we faced (people not able to join the zoom call for various reasons!) the only issue we had was a lack of time. We set aside 30 minutes for the lesson which was far too short. We could have spoken for much longer. Though I learned in a teaching programme once that it is best to finish an activity when the learners are completely engaged, rather than when they start flagging, so, on that basis, maybe the shorter time-frame wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

As for whether we will hold the event this year on a regular basis, nothing concrete has been decided. If we do hold it, I don’t think I will have the time to teach it each week, which means that we would have to pay a teacher to do it for us, and therefore ask for a participation fee as well. It might end up being more effort than it’s worth, as there wasn’t much interest in the first place, and people seem to be more interested in going back to normal face-to-face life as we enter the third year of the pandemic. We’ll keep the idea alive though, and, who knows, it might be nice to hold another short-term event again next winter if we can fit it in.

January-February: Guest Teacher Visits

We managed to join eight school or nursery visits in the third semester. This is fewer than we would have hoped, but, considering the extenuating circumstances, not too bad at all. We started January with two visits to nursery schools on consecutive days, where I was joined by guest teachers from Bolivia, China, Nepal, America and Uzbekistan. The teachers were all wonderful and the kids had a great time meeting them and learning about all sorts of different countries.

After that I was scheduled to join a second-grade human rights education class at Yasu High School at the end of January. Due to the worsening situation regarding Covid, the plan got changed a bit, and instead of 4 teachers going to teach the respective second grade classes, it would be only myself. And if that wasn’t stressful enough, it would be done online. I must say I was somewhat anxious about this, wondering if it might not be the best for the students, but tried to take it in my stride and see it as a learning experience. In the end I can’t even say if it was a success or not. I went to the school and they put me in a back room where I spoke to a computer in which I could only see my PowerPoint and, in the corner, my own face. The vague knowledge that 130 16–17-year-olds were sat listening to me stayed with me, but it was a surreal experience to say the least. My Japanese skill is ok, but I must admit, without being able to have the reaction of the kids, and ask questions etc, I felt very uncomfortable (though tried my best not to show this!). After the presentation (where I introduced the UK, and talked a little about difficulties of foreigners living in Japan) the school teachers were very kind and gracious to me, praising the lesson, though I don’t really in my heart-of-hearts think it was particularly good. I’ve no idea really though, as I didn’t see a single student’s face to gauge reaction!

Into February and as Covid cases increased a lot our planned visits to help with English classes got into a bit of a mess. Firstly, schools had to change some dates due to class closures, before then reducing numbers of guest teachers they requested for the lessons. At one point it seemed every day we were being contacted with a new change to deal with! This gave me a huge amount of work in terms of recruiting the teachers to join us. Last minute changes are pretty much my worst nightmare in terms of this programme, as the recruiting side of it is so challenging. I did somehow manage to make changes to the schedule and find the teachers needed, but then…disaster: I got covid myself at the beginning of February and had to stay at home for two weeks! Some schools were able to rearrange to the new schedule thankfully, and I worked from home recruiting volunteers to come help on my return in mid-February. After all the struggles, I was grateful to be able to make 5 or 6 school visits to help with the English lessons, though it was a shame that three of the schools weren’t able to adjust their schedules so we had to cancel the visits.

Interestingly, our last lessons of the year were actually done online, where myself and two other guest teachers stayed at our office and joined the English lessons at Chuzu ES remotely. We started the lesson with our usual introductions—this time of annual events in our countries (England, America, and Australia)—before practicing dialogues with the kids individually. I was a little apprehensive about how good the lessons might be, but they were actually quite successful. A teacher from the education department came to support us in terms of technology, and, although there were a few hiccups, it went quite smoothly. Of course, nothing can match actually being in the class, but this was a pretty good substitute. It might be tricky to do the regular international understanding based guest teacher classes on an online basis, though I think it is feasible in terms of joining the English lessons. Hopefully next year, instead of simply cancelling visits during covid waves, we can try and join the lessons remotely. It’s certainly something to think about as we try to stay as active as possible in Yasu schools.

February-March: English Tea Parties

We finished the year as usual with our English tea party events. As with the summer events, they were very enjoyable for all involved. It is always nice to have new people attending, both Japanese and foreign residents, and we had lots of interesting new people to meet and chat with at these events too. In terms of foreign participants, I was very grateful for the assistance of volunteers from America (2), Australia (2), the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, and France. I also tried to freshen up the topic talk activity by making some new topic cards—ones with slightly more kooky topics to discuss—which were well received I think, though quite challenging to answer at times… I’ll keep thinking of ways to refresh the tea parties and keep them interesting, though, as I’ve said, it seems to centre around bringing in new people for people to meet. I wouldn’t want to change the event too much, as our regular attendees seem to enjoy it as it is.

That covers most of the main events over the last few months! Of course, I had a lot of other work to do, such as supporting foreign residents with various procedures, health checks, as well as the task of translating Yasu-related tourism brochures into English. I love how varied the job here at YIFA is, and how I get to meet so many nice and interesting people. Things are winding down for me somewhat as the year comes to an end, so I’m going to get a head start preparing for our events of this summer, as well as putting the finishing touches to a very special (for now secret) project we’ve been working on. I also have to renew my visa sometime over the next few months, so this time seems as good as any to do that as well. I’ll write more soon about the special project we’ve been working on, as well as what’s to come as the new working year begins in April. If anyone is reading this (probably just myself in the future!), thanks a lot. All the best, Phil



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