Teaching and travel podcast

These days of online classes are blending into each other – I’m currently in a graduate school program through the University of California at Santa Barbara for becoming an elementary school teacher in California. All the classes are online through zoom. To escape my daily routine, I find that reliving my adventures helps me to travel through my memories. I was excited to participate in a podcast with my friend Rollie Peterkin, who I met in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands in Spain.

I talk about volunteering on farms in New Zealand and Australia and teaching English in Japan and Spain. We go into the advantages of staying in youth hostels and what I learned while traveling alone. Click the link below to check out the podcast!


Below you can see some photos from the hike on Tenerife that I did when I first met Rollie. I was visiting my friend Jessica, a fellow English teacher, who joined us for the hike. She still lives on the Canary Islands, and you can see her blog at www.jessicaluciano.blog. We took a bus on narrow, winding mountain roads to Benijo and walked on steep cliff-side trails to Faro de Anaga. We discovered crumbling abandoned buildings and wild goats along the way. Then we trekked up and over a mountain to a village called Chamorga where we just barely caught the last bus back!

My role at school: friend, teacher, or in-between?

After lunch, I go to the staff room and see my fellow teachers peering out the window, chuckling as they watch students throw snowballs at each other. But I don’t want to stand there and watch the fun from afar.

So I slip into my rubber boots and enter the chaos. I make a snowball, and decide that the baseball captain is my first target. He looks shocked, but retaliates; luckily, I dodge it.

This is where the snowball fight occurred.


Now that I’m in, there’s no going back. I lob snowballs at the giggling packs of girls and chase after the troublemakers. Even the shyest students who barely speak to me are creating attack formations. Before I know it, I’m laughing and running from students who are pelting snowballs at me.

So what is my role at this school? Am I a teacher, a friend, or somewhere in-between? While I aim to be respected, I don’t want to be an unapproachable authority. Sometimes I want to jump in the action and feel like I’m one of them. Ideally, students will be comfortable around me, even if they don’t like English.

When I first came to Japan, I met a Japanese teacher at the Fukui City Summer Camp who had been teaching for over 40 years and worked with more than 20 ALTs (Assistant Language Teacher). So I asked her a question I have repeated over and over, to any teacher willing to answer:

What makes a great ALT?”

She said, “Great ALTs play with the students.”

What a simple answer! Yet so profound.

Later, at a JET conference I was told the secret to being a great ALT was to arrive more than 10 minutes early. I was not satisfied with this answer. To me, it showed that fitting into the culture is more important than any skills or creativity. I was annoyed because I don’t always equate myself with fitting in. I think of myself as free spirited and unique, and I hope to spread my unorthodox ideas to students and open their minds with my weirdness. Do any other teachers at my school have snowball fights, or dance the macerena in the hallways? Is it okay if I wear colorful mismatched socks?

Maybe I worry that I’m not being professional, but I have to remember that I’m a different breed of teacher: one closer to their age, and their mindset. Even though I’m 25, I pride myself in my immaturity. I want to be like a child, free of judgment and unafraid of what other people think of me.

But at the same time, I find myself wondering if it is professional to play catch in the classroom with an eraser. I did this with one boy from the baseball team who seems to hate English. At the time, I was happy that we were interacting, because he usually associates me solely with English and only scowls at me. After the fact, I couldn’t help but question myself. As a teacher, was I supposed to chastise him for throwing an eraser in class? Instead, I followed my gut and just started playing.

Even though I’m still not sure if my behavior is appropriate, I’m beginning to realize that my time outside of the classroom is where I can build my strongest relationships with students. So I’ve been going to after-school clubs and sports, joining PE classes, and wandering the halls during free time and after lunch.

A few months ago I was beginning to feel depressed at work. There was a big test coming up, so most teachers were too busy to acknowledge me. I had no classes scheduled for a few days, and I felt ignored and isolated. I would walk the halls between classes, trying to engage with students, but besides that I had nothing to do all day. I told my supervisor this, and he told me: ‘Don’t feel isolated! We like you. But we’re busy!’

Unfortunately this didn’t solve the problem. So I had to take action.

I needed to create something to look forward to, so I decided to ask the PE teacher if I could join his class. To my surprise, he checked the schedule and instantly aid yes! I often worry that I might inconvenience people, but the PE teacher welcomed me.

So I joined a kendo class later that day. I took off my shoes, and sat on the ground next to the students, and pretended to be able to understand what he was saying. He loaned me a bamboo sword. I floundered about, not sure what to do, but students rose to the challenge and stepped up to give me instructions in English. Suddenly, there was an instant role-reversal: they were the experts, and I was clueless. I hope that they felt empowered by teaching me.

Later, I joined a first-year PE class where students were doing gymnastics. The PE teacher seemed thrilled to learn the English word for ‘handstand’, and I was able to show off my cartwheeling skills. Most importantly, I had fun cheering and high-fiving students after they performed their acrobatics.

Whenever I join a sport, my aim is to boost student’s egos. So far I’ve tried basketball, volleyball, table tennis, track and field, soccer and badminton. Playing sports with them forces them to connect with me, even if they are the type who typically avoid eye contact in class.

At basketball practice, the captain took me aside and gave me some pointers on shooting technique. This student doesn’t particularly like English, but because I showed interest in his sport, he wanted to share his skills with me. I felt lucky that he gave me his unsolicited one-on-one attention!

I was worried that the track and field team would leave me in the dust,  but I was happy to find that they were cheering me on. They even invited me to practice with them again.

So should I throw erasers in classrooms? Should I join the snowball fight? Should I showcase my weirdness? Until I hear someone tell me not to, I’m going to keep doing it. It makes my job more fun, and deepens my connections with my students. I’m here to be involved, so I might as well take action.



I can’t post photos of my students, but I hope you enjoy my snow photography!


Tokyo Speech Contest: Journey to the Finals

Every time I take a weekend excursion, I feel like I am in full-flung travel mode again. Flashback to my 28 months on the road. It’s just me and my backpack, and I’m free to go anywhere.

With my job as English teacher in rural Japan, I can have this sensation every weekend, if I want.

This is the moat around the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo.

But what made this trip unique was its purpose: I was traveling to Tokyo for one of my students. My student Yuta* had miraculously made it to the finals of the 67th All Japan Inter-Middle School English Oratorical Contest.

Our journey began when I arrived at my new workplace in early August. On my desk was a speech, which Yuta had written in Japanese and the previous ALT had translated into English. However, my supervisor suggested that we give it an overhaul. My supervisor, a creative and spontaneous English teacher, has a knack for speeches. In his 20 years of teaching he has brought 9 students to the finals in Tokyo. So the two of us – me, as a creative writing major, and he as an experienced teacher – made a great team for helping Yuta reach his potential.

Yuta has been going to private English lessons after school for many years. Unlike most students, he looks you in the eye when he’s talking to you. Even though he’s a little small for his age, his loud voice and strong opinions often make him the center of attention. I’ve seen him in his classes; he’s not your typical shy Japanese kid.

Yuta and I started practicing after school, for an hour or more. At the beginning, it was mostly talking about his ideas, and trying to find the right words to express them. Google translate helped a lot. After about 10 revisions, we had settled on the final draft. He must have learned dozens of new words in the process.

Soon, it was time for the local contest. About 60 students from local junior high schools gathered at a community center to give their 5 minute speeches to a room filled with at least a hundred teachers, parents, and fellow students. For most of the day, I practiced with Yuta outside. When it was his turn, he spoke in a big, passionate voice. Unlike the previous speaker, who forgot her speech half-way through, Yuta’s natural confidence and enthusiastic personality made him truly shine. I couldn’t help but cry as I watched him. I felt so proud to know him.

He won second place in the local contest that day, and the top three students were invited to the national competition in Tokyo! The first place winner from our local bracket was a Brazilian girl who spoke about her multifaceted relationship with her mother.

Soon it was time to prepare for Tokyo. Yuta asked me if I wanted to practice three times a day: before school, after lunch, and after school. I felt honored that a student wanted to spend so much time with me. At our practices, I always asked him, ‘What do you want to do today?’ This simple question is an example of something I learned while working at the SBCC Writing Center. Letting a student direct the interaction makes them feel more connected with the lesson.  Yuta seemed to appreciate the power to decide what to do.

He would usually ask for help with his pronunciation. He used to say ‘muzzer’ instead of ‘mother,’ and any word with an L or R is often challenging for Japanese people. So we practiced words like ‘recently’ ‘learn’ and ‘school’ many, many times.

It was fun for me to experiment with different teaching methods. For example, when he said, ‘We are not afraid to say what we think,’ I told him to put equal weight on the ‘what we think’, clapping to illustrate the rhythm of the phrase.

When I was helping him, I thought of comparing words to music.

Five Days in Tokyo: A Hiatus from Reality

I was the only ALT from Fukui to accompany a student to Tokyo, and only because I fought for it. I had a feeling that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I told my supervisor I really, really wanted to go, and he listened. Sure, I had to take time off and pay my own way, but I still feel incredibly grateful.

The night before I was supposed to leave, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I met my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) Mr. Yamada*  on the train. We opted for the fast train – called the shinkansen – which travels at an average of 170 miles per hour. We were in Tokyo in 3 hours. (It’s a 6 hour drive!)

Yuta and his family had driven to Tokyo the night before. Once we found them, we practiced in his hotel room for a bit, and parted ways. Yuta was in a hotel payed for by the speech contest – he got to share a room with other participants. I know he made a lot of new friends! I spent the night at a friend’s house to save money.

The next morning it was Yuta’s turn to give his speech at the semifinals. I took detailed notes about the other speakers and made predictions. As I watched them, I couldn’t help but think that he had a chance to move forward. As his turn approached, my stomach started doing somersaults. I think I was more nervous than he was! When it was his turn to speak, again I couldn’t help but cry. Tears rolled down my face as I watched him shine, confident and pure-hearted, unafraid.

And miraculously, he made it! Out of the 33 students from the Northern Japan Region, he was in the top 7, earning him a coveted spot in the finals the following day.

Held at a fancier location in a bigger auditorium, the atmosphere at the finals was thick with nerves. These were the most talented junior high school English speakers in Japan, all in one room!

I was astounded by the inspiring topics and impeccable delivery from these kids. They spoke about important real world issues, such as Japan’s relationship with Korea and the 70th anniversary of World War II.  Several shared  captivating anecdotes about overcoming bullying and bigotry. One of the finalists had a German father, and spoke about her dual identity as both Japanese and German.

Most of the participants were from private schools; only 8 students out of the 30 finalists were from public schools. (Yuta was one of them!) Many of them spoke with a British accent, and some truly sounded like native speakers.

During the breaks, I conversed with several of the contestants, and was impressed by how comfortable they were talking with me.

This is the banquet hall where we had a reception for the speech contest. There must have been a thousand students, teachers, and parents here!

The Results

Unfortunately, Yuta didn’t make it in the top 7. And yes, I cried again when he gave his speech. I’m incredibly proud of him. After all, he was one of the best 30 speakers in all of Japan.

After the contest, I paid a ridiculous sum to attend the closing banquet, where I got to see a Japanese princess speak with a British accent, congratulate all the students and present the final award. The first-place speaker was a girl from Okinawa who urged listeners to turn off their smartphones and pay attention to the world.

When I was back at school, my supervisor asked me to do a write-up about my impressions about the speech contest. You can read my conclusions here:

What makes a great speech? After watching my student participate in the finals of the 67th All Japan Inter-Middle School English Oratorical Contest speech contest, I have drawn some conclusions. The speeches were judged based on three categories: Content, English and Delivery. Therefore, the winners must have an interesting topic, be easy to understand, and connect with the audience.

 First and foremost, a great speech must have unique and captivating content. In the finals, no two speeches had the same topic, although some of them had overlapping themes. The winning speech was about how smartphones are changing society. The second place winner spoke about the importance of names. Yuta’s speech, titled ‘Children are our Teachers,’ was about learning from children. He urged listeners to retain childlike qualities like enthusiasm, bravery and innocence even as we grow up.

 Secondly, every speech in the finals was easy to understand. The finalists all spoke clearly and I could comprehend every word of their speeches. Many of the speakers, such as the first place winner, sounded like native speakers. However, students with a noticeable accent – like Yuta– were still successful in conveying their message.

Lastly, the speakers in the finals all had the ability to connect with the audience because of their confidence and humor. Like Yuta’s speech, the top winners all made the audience laugh. A speaker must have a strong personality, and have the confidence to speak loudly on stage in front of hundreds of people.

All in all, I am extremely grateful for the experience of working with my students and fellow English teachers during this speech contest, especially Yuta. Both he and I learned a lot from each other. I hope that next year I can take another student from Midori* Junior High School to the finals in Tokyo!

*I changed the name of my student, the teacher I was working with, and my school to protect their privacy.

Unfortunately I can’t post pictures of my students on the blog. So here are some random photos from my trip. The speech contest was only one part of my 5 days in Tokyo. In addition, I visited a fish market, played ultimate frisbee, met up with a few old friends, and experienced Tokyo nightlife. Yay for adventures!