The Melancholy of a Middle School ALT
I've never been so unconvinced by something as the chorus of "I'm fine, thank you. And you?" that begins every middle school English class in Japan. Fidgety and eager to sit down, each student in unison chirps back this phrase they were taught was a standard classroom greeting, going through the motions without any obvious indication that they've attached any sort of meaning to the sounds.
Unfortunately, the longer you're here the more you realize that this sort of rote memorization devoid of deeper understanding isn't reserved for greetings and set phrases, but permeates throughout the entire English language education system in Japan (well, their entire education system, really. Though it is understandably more effective for things like the sciences and memorizing thousands of kanji). When it comes to learning a new language with a completely different logic from your own, however, there's only so far memorization can get you, and - here's a hint - it isn't very far.
I remember when I was learning Japanese in school, 90% of class time was spent doing pair work, creating example sentences from our own lives to use the grammar point we had just learned and really wrap our heads around it and make it our own. In contrast, students here spend much of class time standing, facing the board, repeating the example conversations from the textbook aloud over and over until they can parrot the whole thing back without looking. And then, worst of all, they're graded on it. On top of that, when they are given the odd assignment to put together sentences, instead of being allowed to be creative and pick and choose examples that might help them to actually remember what they're learning, they're given set lists of words to match together, letting them use process of elimination to avoid thinking too much and limiting their exposure to different, more relevant vocabulary. And, the teachers are always very quick to supply a student who's taking a little too long with the answer without giving them time to mull it over or even attempt to answer on their own. It's infuriating to watch, to say the least.
But, as middle school ALTs, watching is all we really can do. No matter how much this frustrates us, even if we try to affect change, for a lot of us, given our temporary positions as well as the rigidity of the system, it likely isn't going to happen in any meaningful way. If we try to bring up a change in lesson format, the teacher, a product of this system themselves, will often object, insisting that it's too difficult for the students or that there won't be enough time.
It's generally accepted that in the JET Program, those who are assigned primarily to middle schools are given the least amount of responsibility (within the confines of ESID, of course). High school ALTs are in charge of doing their own lesson planning, and elementary ALTs, because of the lack of a curriculum in most schools for the first through fourth grade at least, need to come up with activities on a regular basis. Middle school ALTs, though? We're kind of stuck in this awkward place.
The students' English level is still at a point where they need a native Japanese teacher explaining grammar to them, leaving no real possibility for ALTs to run lessons like they do in high school. And their curriculum actually progresses rather quickly, meaning there's little room to insert the more "fun" activities that could be done in an elementary school. From my own experience, even when suggesting to do things like a cultural lesson about Halloween or Christmas or school in the US (one of the few things actually expected of us), I've been told to keep it within twenty to thirty minutes because there's just so much that they need to cover before the next test that they really can't take a whole class period to do something so unrelated to grammar.
In the end, most of our jobs consist of designing bulletin boards that are never read and standing in the front of the class repeating vocabulary words two or three times so that the students can hear native pronunciation - whether they decide to try to emulate it or not.
However, that is not to say that all hope is lost. In fact, at one of my schools, along side the very worst perpetrator of this kind of outdated, ineffective pedagogy, there is a teacher who actively encourages her students to reply to her "how are you" with their actual feelings, regardless of whether or not the whole class is in sync. She makes her own materials using examples that are relevant to their lives and goes above and beyond to ensure that the kids are hearing native English on a regular basis even when I'm not around, taking videos of me pronouncing words that are difficult for Japanese speakers and giving short speeches. And while she is definitely the exception to the rule, it does go to show that views may be changing, albeit quite slowly.