Wet Hot Japanese Summer: Keeping Cool in the Classroom

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On August 7, 2018
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Summer is in high gear now and my students are currently enjoying a well-deserved summer break. However, for myself and many other assistant language teachers the work continues and I have already started planning my classes for when the students return in four weeks time. By that time — the end of August, when classes resume — it will most likely be just as hot as it is now.

While I’m grateful for the large air conditioner above my desk in the teacher room that helps keep me cool as I prep, my students aren’t so lucky. Air conditioners aren’t installed in most of my classrooms, meaning students are — on top of being hot and steamy — often tired, irritable and sometimes unable to retain even the simplest information.

As teachers, this is perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face as ALTs in the classroom: How can you give the most normal lesson possible while both you and your students are sweating bucket loads with only minimal relief from the energy sucking heat and humidity?

As I’ve said previously, effective planning is key. You need to consider what activities and what games to use. Today, I present my top four pieces of advice to help your students move beyond their summer doldrums.

1) Forget about running around

This should be fairly obvious, but when it’s too hot, the last thing you want is to force kids to run around. Unfortunately, schools in Japan don’t always apply common sense in this regard and it can lead to tragedy. Earlier this summer, a first year elementary school student in Toyota died of heatstroke after being taken on a field trip to a local park — despite temperatures outside of around 33 degrees Celsius.

… ask your head English teacher if the classes on hot days can be held in the classroom, instead.

Students — elementary school kids especially — love to run around and this is often reflected in many of the activity and game choices I make in my younger classes. However, when it’s this hot outside, you need to switch gears. Keep the students seated and have them work in small groups. Many elementary schools will have their English classes in the school’s multi-purpose or music rooms. These tend to be large, open-plan spaces where the kids tend to sit on the floor.

If possible, ask your head English teacher if the classes on hot days can be held in the classroom, instead. This will put the students in a calmer, more focused frame of mind and in hot weather it’s better for you, too. A smaller space is much easier to control from a classroom management viewpoint, as well. Also, perhaps most importantly, on hot days it means students can have quick and easy access to their water bottles (which they typically leave in the classroom when they go elsewhere for a lesson) if they need them.

2) Work with your neighbor

Perhaps the simplest activities to do on hot days revolve around pair work. Pair activities mean students can stay seated and don’t need to run around. However, the type of activity is important, too. For junior high school students, something like a dialogue “gap fill” activity is ideal.

Gap fills are also easy to prepare for the teacher. Basically, write out a two-person dialogue using language the students are already familiar with. Give each student a copy and have them practice role A and role B in pairs. If time allows, have some of these pairs present to the class.

Pair activities mean students can stay seated and don’t need to run around.

Next, give students copies of the same dialogues — but with some key words removed. In place of these words, give the students three options to choose from that are different from the original but still make sense. For example: If the original sentence was: “May I have a coffee, please?” you could give the students options like this: “May I have a tea/coke/tomato juice, please?” Again have the students practice then select a few pairs to present afterwards.

In the final part of this activity, we remove all the scaffolding for the students and encourage them to come up with their own ideas. Again, remove certain keywords from each line of the dialogue, but this time, don’t offer any options for the students to choose. Instead, leave a blank space from which they can insert their own ideas.

3) Board games aren’t boring

For elementary school students, an activity such as a dialogue gap fill would be too complicated, so you need to offer something simpler. This is a great time for you to make your own board games. I find that Snakes and Ladders-type games, where students use dice and a board, can make for an excellent, engaging but still low energy activity they will enjoy.

You can find various templates online that you can download and insert your own questions for each square on the board. Remember that for elementary students, they most likely won’t be able to read English yet, so its better to use pictures rather than words.

Snakes and Ladders-type games […] can make for an excellent, engaging but still low energy activity they will enjoy.

For example, recently I made a game for students to practice “I like” and “I don’t like.” Each square simply had a picture of a food, animal or sport and kids simply had to say whether they liked it or not when they landed on it. For example: “I like cats” or “I don’t like baseball.”

As for the dice themselves, you can download templates for making your own paper dice from most teaching materials websites. However, I usually prefer to buy mine from a ¥100 shop. You can usually get a pack of four or six dice for ¥100. Two or three of those will easily cover a class, provided you put the students into groups of four or five. Buying your own dice also brings the added incentive of not having to make new paper dice before every class —  you’ll be amazed at how quickly those things fall apart!

4) Make sure everyone stays hydrated

Last, but I believe most important on this list, is the issue of water.

… students should have water bottles with them in class.

Your students should have water bottles with them in class. Don’t be afraid to have a two-minute water timeout if you see them wilting in the heat. Some Japanese teachers I’ve worked with in the past didn’t do this as a general rule, but provided you do so in a polite manner, I have never yet come across one who objected to stopping the lesson for a couple of minutes to allow the students to get a quick drink.

Also, you should not be afraid to take a bottle of water into class with you yourself. Again, this is probably a violation of school rules under ordinary circumstances, but when it’s nearly 40 C outside and the fans aren’t giving you any relief at all, no reasonable colleague will object to you taking on a little bit of extra hydration.

Is your classroom in Japan overly hot in the summer? What are some tips and tricks you use to beat the heat and keep the students engaged? Let us know in the comments!

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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