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Diversity in the Classroom: 4 Ways to Keep English Lessons Inclusive

The number of foreign and multiracial students in Japan has increased a great deal since I first came to Japan. What can we, as teachers, do to aid inclusion?

By 6 min read

I want to begin this post with a quick story. Let’s see how you would have handled this situation if you were me.

Back in 2014 I was working in an elementary school in Osaka City. My morning break was interrupted by the fourth grade teacher. She’d brought along her student, thinking that this terrified little kid might open up and speak English better when confronted with my big, fat foreign face.

“This is Ryu,” she said, nudging him forward. “He’s from Brazil.”

Having some Brazilian friends, I was intrigued to hear more.

“Oh, really,” I said. “What part of Brazil are you from?”

The kid gazed at me, bewildered. I repeated the question, this time in Japanese. He just shook his head. I tried a different angle.

“Where were you born?” I asked him in Japanese.

“Osaka,” he answered.

“Have you ever been to Brazil?” I asked him.

“No,” he replied.

“Oh, well, then you’re Japanese.”

“Yes.” He smiled.

His teacher interrupted. “No. His father is from Brazil so he’s not Japanese — he’s Brazilian.”

At this point I asked the boy, who could clearly understand we were talking about him, to wait outside.

‘No. His father is from Brazil so he’s not Japanese — he’s Brazilian.’

I said to his teacher: “Look, I don’t know what point you’re trying to prove but this boy has never been to Brazil, he knows little about the place, he was born in Japan, has lived here his whole life and he even has a Japanese name. This kid himself says he is Japanese. Why is that a problem for you?”

The teacher just gave me a dismissive look: “Well, you’re not Japanese, so I don’t expect you to understand.”

Some might call it racism, some might call it bigotry. I tend to think it’s a blend of the two, with a large scoop of willful ignorance added on top.

I made a point of talking to that same kid later in the day. I told him I enjoyed meeting him and if he ever wanted to talk to me he was always welcome to stop by the teachers’ room. I finished by telling him: “I’m always happy to make new Japanese friends.”

What you have here is a teacher unable to keep up with the changing face of the modern Japanese school.

Marriages between Japanese and foreigners are increasing year by year, despite a sharp decline after immigration reforms were passed in 2006, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare. So are the number of foreigners in Japan in general. It’s only natural , then, that this also leads to an increase in the number of foreign and multiracial students in the classroom.

Unfortunately, there remain some rather outmoded views regarding multiculturalism in the teaching profession — though I do want to emphasize in the strongest possible terms that the story I just related is the exception and not the rule.

What steps can you take as an English teacher in a Japanese classroom to ensure mixed-race and foreign students have as comfortable a time as possible? Here are four tips from my own experiences.

1. Let the students speak when they’re ready

One common cause of quite obvious discomfort for half-Japanese or mixed-race students that I have noticed in the English classroom is when their Japanese teachers — meaning well but lacking awareness — push these students to speak English all the time and to have protracted conversations with the ALT during class. This can often lead to further alienation. Not only will the other students not understand what we’re saying, but also they may resent a student “showing off” their superior abilities.

There is a simple a way to counter this. After class, have a chat with your colleague. Ask them: “If you were the only student in the class who knew the answer and you were worried that everyone else might shun you if showed how good you were. What would you do?”

“I would keep quiet,” is their usual response.

I would then follow up: “Well, that’s exactly what your student wanted to do today. Kids who stand out from the group have the highest risk of being bullied or ignored by their classmates. It’s better to wait for them to speak when they are ready.”

Thankfully, most (but not all), of my colleagues down the years were receptive to this point of view.

The key is that you maintain the group harmony by keeping the everyone involved.

2. Treat all students the same

As I’ve mentioned before, in a Japanese school environment the it is the perception of equality, shared values and responsibilities that is at its fundamental core. As teachers, we all have our favorite students and as English teachers, we may find that we like the students who can speak to us in our own language more. However, you need to be aware of the group dynamic. There’s nothing wrong with responding in kind when students engage you in English but make sure the others don’t feel left out.

Outside of class, try to use Japanese and include others in the conversation, too. If you don’t have the language ability, then try to involve the other students anyway, your bilingual student could even act as a translator. The key is that you maintain the group harmony by keeping the everyone involved. Ultimately, this is better in the long run for both you and your student.

3. Help all your students see the value of English

I said previously that you need to allow your students to speak when they feel ready and not force the issue, but when they do — be sure to praise them as much as you can and encourage others to follow suit. Show the class through your actions and words that being speaking English is a talent to be proud of, not a burden to be hidden.

4. Alleviate boredom among students by asking for help

Once you’ve reached a point where your mixed race or foreign students are comfortable speaking English in the classroom, let them shine. We can do this by sometimes (but not too often — we’re not playing favorites or taming teachers’ pets) inviting the student to help you at the front of the class.

This can be through helping to demonstrate an activity or model a dialogue. This allows the student to show their full abilities without alienating others. It sets a fine example for the other students to follow. And, perhaps most importantly, it raises all the students’ interest. If they do well, perhaps they will be chosen to assist the teacher next time.

With each passing year, more and more people from abroad are choosing to make this wonderful country their home and raise families. It’s our job, as English teachers, to act as a bridge between these newcomers, their children and their new home. Japan will be better for it and so, too, will our classrooms.

Do you have some tips for creating a more inclusive environment in your classroom? Let us know in the comments!

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