By Yoshika Wason
Last June was a bittersweet time for me. I was excited to start my new adventure in Japan as a new JET ALT but also sad to leave my old life behind. One of my biggest challenges during this time was packing up my kindergarten classroom.
I consider myself to have minimalist tendencies but the reality was that I had accumulated a lot of things that I could no longer keep. So once I packed up materials that belonged to the school, I trashed posters and decorations I had painstakingly made, raffled books from my classroom library to students, and gave away manipulatives to newer teachers as had been done for me earlier. The only item that I chose to keep was a small timer from Daiso.
With my trusty timer in tow, I embarked on my new life in Aomori. I adjusted quickly to school life but I longed for my old classroom since I was now traveling from class to class. Without a room of my own, I started to bring a plastic box with me each lesson with worksheets and other important items including my Daiso timer, a clipboard, and stickers.
The process of downsizing my classroom and now only having one box for my things made me curious. What do other ALTs consider to be their “must have” teaching item? To answer my question, I created a survey and solicited responses from fellow ALTs. Below you’ll see some highlights from the 32 people who participated in the survey.
Everyone Loves Stickers
By far, the most popular item was stickers. Sometimes a little external motivation in the form of a sticker makes a world of difference. One ALT who brings stickers as a reward also uses them to reinforce vocabulary. They explain, “I can tie in English vocabulary practice, like colors or animals, when they’re choosing what stickers they want.”
Another reward is Savannah’s hanko stamp system. She says this about her students: “everytime they participate or win a game, I give them a hanko stamp on their namecard. At the end of the term it counts…towards their participation grade.” Savannah’s reward system reminded me of a passport system, which involves collecting stamps to go on a journey.
Another ALTs reward of choice is “English dollars” and other items in a rewards basket. They explain: “While many people believe students should learn for learning’s sake, I’m all about anything that…[gets] my kids participating and learning, even if, at face value, it only appears they’re in it for the prize. The students will better remember content if they’re earning points and being correct because it becomes associated with good, pleasant, experiences which their prize can be a daily reminder of.”
Always Have a Plan B
We all have bad days. Sometimes a lesson doesn’t go as planned or the timing is off. Knowing this, Lauren is always prepared with a plan b which is why she brings bingo cards to class as a “back pocket” activity. Meghana thinks along the same lines and brings a karuta set in her pencil bag.
Bag of Tricks
Remember Meghana’s pencil bag? Well she discovered that it’s technically a makeup bag, which means that it’s larger than a standard pencil pouch and therefore it can hold more things. This begs the question: what’s in the bag? Many ALTs store useful things like magnets, flash cards, and writing utensils (or specifically a multicolored pen in Kira’s case.)
Bringing some kind of carrying case, whether it be a bag or basket, is a key item that allows ALTs to think on their feet. As Alicia explains, “If my JTEs or HRTs need me to change something up at the last minute, I can be ready to handle almost anything with my teaching bag.”
Eliciting student participation is a balancing act between the extremes of over relying on cold calling and only using student volunteers. To navigate this, some ALTs have go to items on hand to increase participation in a fun way. Items to that ALTs use to increase participation include a ball, a stuffed animal, and a deck of cards.
Rachael chooses to bring a ball because of its versatility. She adds, “I’ve managed to create games on lessons with the ball as a method of choosing the participant, having students pass the ball while reciting (ex. Days of the week, months, seasons) or catching the ball and reading the first letter they see on the ball out loud.”
Time Is of the Essence
I mentioned that a timer is one of my personal must have items and two other ALTS agree. Kate brings a timer to class because “it adds a sense of urgency to tasks, allows me to keep track of lesson timings, keeps students focused and lets them manage their time appropriately for different stages of tasks.”
English Is Fun
For many ALTs, part of the job is making English fun for students. Sam adds some extra fun to English class through laminated characters, explaining that, “I use laminated characters, like a cut out Pikachu or Judy Hopps, to make competition games more fun (team Pikachu vs Team Mario), for Godzilla vs Police flyswatter game, and for examples (“He can jump high.” With Mario above “He” to visually show he vs she.)”
Rachel uses music to make English fun. She says, “I always bring a CD or MP3 (but if I forget it or have technical difficulties, I just sing in a pinch.) Teaching younger children, I find using a song is the best way to help them warm up, relax, and get into an English mindset.”
When teaching a foreign language, visual aides are a life saver. This is why some teachers bring flash cards to class. As Amy explains, flashcards are great because they are, “something physical (maybe with a picture) to look at and remember. And saves me writing everything on the board.”
Lisa has a subscription to National Geographic for a similar reason. As she put it, “the photos within and the ways to lesson plan are endless, and can be used at any level of language learning, and for any content area – listening, speaking, reading, writing.”
Chris incorporates visual aids in his teaching practice by bringing a British IPA chart to class “to help show the number of vowels in British English and to explain them with both written and spoken examples.”
If you bring visuals to class, you’ll want to bring magnets to display them and Maddi recommends bringing a pointer to prevent your body from blocking the blackboard.
The Man in the Mirror
Kahlan’s must have is an intangible but no less important thing to bring to every class—energy. She says, “I am DOOMED if I don’t have any energy when I go to class. The difference between when I do and when I don’t have any energy is staggering.”
Samantha took a similar approach to the survey, with a self care angle. When allowed, a water bottle is her must have item because, “it’s so, so important to keep hydrated when your voice is such a huge part of your job.”
Before I leave my apartment every day, I do a “wallet, phone, key check” to make sure I have all the essentials I’ll need for the day. Some ALTs do the classroom equivalent of this before they teach their lessons. The essentials that they check for vary person to person but they might include: a lesson plan, textbook, chalk, English roster, and clipboard.
That Was Easy
Michael gets the award for the most unique item from the survey. He explains that he brings a “that was easy” button from Staples because, “I have found this to be a really unique and American item that allows me to gain control of the class when they get pretty rowdy during class activities and games we often play in JHS. Not only is it really easy to carry to class, but it’s a lot more interesting than a regular bell; and it can be heard over the air sirens that play at noon every day in my town.”
A Final Note
Thank you to everyone who participated in the survey! Your responses encouraged me to try using new items in my English lessons. The process of conducting this survey and writing this article served as a reminder that as ALT’s, we can always learn from each other.