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Pay It Forward: Finish the Japanese School Year with Motivated Students

Give your final lessons of the year extra spark and keep kids eager to better their English.

By 8 min read

The third term in Japanese schools always seems to fly by so quickly. While the April-to-July and September-to-December portions seem normal, it feels like just last week that I arrived back in Japan after my three-week break for Christmas and New Year in Scotland to finish the school year — and here we are with just a little over two weeks remaining. Hopefully, if you followed this handy guide to acing your teacher assessments, you’ve already been retained for another year.

I’m not sure how it works out for the rest of you, but for this particular ALT, this week and next will see me give my final classes of the year. For the fifth graders I teach, it will be about thanking them for all their hard work so far and giving them a bit of added motivation to keep pushing forward next school year. The year 2020, after all, is set to be a time of great change for elementary school English education all across Japan.

… you should have a bit more free reign to craft a lesson focused more on fun and less on language points.

For the sixth graders, it’s time to say farewell as they move on to high school but not goodbye, since this town is small enough that I’m bound to run into them again from time to time. It’s also a good time to leave them some final motivational words of wisdom to remember you by.

With such a sense of finality in the air, it would be all too easy to get somber, but that’s the last thing you want to do. No doubt, the sadness of saying goodbye to the place that has been their second home for the past six  years to head to a new, foreboding place like junior high school is traumatic enough in its own right. You want to provide some much needed levity and send them off with good memories of you and your lessons.

So, how can we best accomplish this? Here are my top five helpful hints for what to say and do in those final lessons to end the year on a high — for you and your students.

1. Keep it light and fun

Students in a Japanese high school.

Your final lesson should be something of a “greatest hits” collection of the things your students enjoyed the most over the past year. Hopefully, by this point in time, you will have already finished the textbook. That being the case, you should have a bit more free reign to craft a lesson focused more on fun and less on language points. Think about what games your students seemed the most enthused by this year and build some fun lesson plans and activities around those.

For example, the sixth graders at one of the schools where I teach love quizzes. So, I’ve made their final lesson one long team-based quiz game in which we cycle through the three activities that they enjoyed most this year. These are “Shark Game,” “Vocabulary Jeopardy” and “Guess Who?”

Let me explain the games in greater detail.

Shark game

The shark game is basically a more locally appropriate variant on the classic word game for kids called Hangman.

Create a word puzzle on the board as you would in a game of Hangman, but next to it draw a Jaws-style shark protruding from the water  and a series of steps leading up to a stick man figure. Remove one step for each wrong answer the kids give.

Vocabulary Jeopardy

Vocabulary Jeopardy follows the same structure as the famous TV game show, but with you as Alex Trebek. The topics you choose for your questions will vary according to the level of your class, but as an example, the five subject headings I used for my six grade class were: countries, sports, food and drink, animals, Japanese (you say a word in English and they have to reply in Japanese) and English (you say a word in Japanese and they have to reply in English).

I recommend dispensing with the whole “answer in the form of a question” thing as this will only confuse the students. You should encourage them to answer in complete sentences, though.

Guess who?

Finally, this another activity once again inspired by a popular board game. You show a student a picture of a famous person, but don’t allow the rest of the class to see it. The student then has to describe this person to their classmates using only the phrases “He/she is… ,” “He/she likes… ” and “He/she can… ” Characters from movies, anime or comics tend to work well, as do popular sports figures. Just to be safe though, try a few out on your coworkers beforehand. If they don’t know them, it’s unlikely the kids will either.

6 Types of Students Language Teachers Will Meet in Japan

How you score it is up to you. You can either allot points for how quickly one team guesses the answer or give more points to the teams that use the  fewest clues to get the answer.

These are, of course, just some sample activities that have worked especially well in my own lessons. What you do with your class — and which activities you think will work best — is entirely up to you.

2. Involve your Japanese colleagues

Of course, the ALT lesson isn’t just about you. The homeroom teacher you work alongside is just as important. Understanding the needs of your Japanese teachers of English (JTE) and maintaining good communication with them is absolutely crucial. So, it’s vital that they feel part of proceedings, too.

A week or two beforehand, try to sit down with them and map out exactly how they can maximize their involvement in these last classes of the year. We want the students to leave this final lesson not only with a good impression of you, but also with the memory of how good their homeroom teacher was at English, in the hopes that they too will try to emulate that in the future.

3. Consider giving awards

One great idea that a colleague of mine suggested a few years ago was the idea of certificates of recognition. These give the students something tangible that they can take away with them as a marker of their achievements in English class.

There are various certificate templates available online, but I recommend designing your own if you can find the time. That way, the students have something unique to your class that they can treasure as a memory. Make sure that you sign each certificate individually and if you can, providing a short, personalized message is also a nice touch.

These are simple things, but in the bigger picture, as students look back on their school days, they will really appreciate the acknowledgment of their work in class.

4. Be prepared to say a few final words

This is where it gets tricky. You want to say a few sentences to your students — not just to congratulate them on completing the year, but also to motivate them to keep going next year and beyond.

You can try to use very simple English, but in all honesty, this is one of the few times in class where I say: dispense with the rules and talk to the students in their own language. Throwing out a little Japanese — especially when your kids don’t know you can speak any — also has a subtle of symmetry to it as a means of closing out the year.

Taking Control of English Classes at Japanese Schools

Even if you aren’t confident in using Japanese, something simple can go a long way, like: “Mina-san ichinenkan otsukaresamadeshita! (Well done everyone for your hard work over the past year!). You can follow this up with: “Rainen mo, ganbattekudasai.” (This loosely translates as: “Keep going for next year, too!”)

It shows the students that all that time when you’ve been pushing them to improve their English, away from class you, too, have been working on improving your own language skills.

5. Leave them with a memorable quote

One of the final acts you may be asked to perform for the school year is to sign a student’s yearbook or to craft a message for the graduating students to be included in the class yearbook prior to printing. It’s a personal choice, but I like to leave students with an inspirational quote. And since the students know about my love of movies, I tend to use movie quotes.

Generally, I present these only in English. The kids may not fully understand what it says at the moment, but hopefully that sense of mystery will encourage them to find out on their own what these quotes or maxims mean in the future,.

It’s up to you what you would like to use or reference, but here is a few that I’ve cited down the years:

  • “Do or do not. There is no try.” ~Yoda, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
  • “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon seem inevitable.” ~Christopher Reeve (Superman actor)
  • “Live now; make now the most precious time. Now will never come again.” ~Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation

I am optimistic about the future. With each year that passes and every new class that graduates, I see things getting a little better. Overall, English levels here are improving; students are becoming more and more aware of the wider world beyond Japan’s borders and the opportunities it offers them. More importantly — they don’t fear foreigners like previous generations may have done.

Perhaps that utopian future where people from all over the world come together to build starships and surpass new frontiers isn’t so far away from us after all?

How do you handle those final lessons with your students? What final words of wisdom do you like to leave for graduating classes? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.

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