I’ve always been amazed at the speed with which junior high school teachers can grade students’ homework. I remember how my English teachers would come back from class with a stack of 40 notebooks and, after preparing a red ink pad, putting on the thumb part of a latex glove and grabbing their stamp, they would hammer through the entire stack. The sounds of paper flipping and stamps smacking created a consistent uninterrupted rhythm comparable to a music piece. In about five minutes teachers would be finished grading and already on to their next task. I imagine that this kind of skill comes along with teaching thousands of students over several years.
I was astounded by the speed of their actions, but then I saw what students were doing for homework. Notebooks were filled with vocabulary written repeatedly until the entire sheet of paper was full. I thought to myself: how does writing the same words over and over help with language acquisition? Maybe the consistent writing helps students remember the spelling of words, but how do we even know if students understand the words? What does this homework tell us about what students know? I can imagine that, as quickly as teachers graded homework, students were just as brisk trying to finish it to spend time with friends, video games, or other homework, and a lot of this was probably done without considering the meaning of each word.
Were my colleagues really to blame for this though? Teachers at my school are so busy balancing club activities, administrative duties, and teaching that they barely have time to make it home for dinner or buy discounted boxed lunches from the supermarket at closing time. I spoke about this challenge with English teachers from other schools and one teacher gave me an idea for changing the homework. Instead of constantly writing the same word, students could write it once, along with the Japanese definition, use it in a sentence, and draw a picture of it. It would be a big change at first, but it would be more rewarding, and students would be able to demonstrate what they know.
Compared with the other English teachers at my school, I had a lot of free time (almost too much) and was willing to take on some of their work to help out. I could offer to do the vocabulary notebooks. However, I held back from suggesting the new idea at first because I feared it wouldn’t be accepted and might be seen as a waste of time and effort. Many of the English teachers had been teaching for 20 plus years and some of them were about to retire. Why would a teacher with 40 years of experience consider changing their practice just because a newcomer thinks it’s a good idea? Perhaps they already knew the homework that students were assigned could have been better, but making big changes wasn’t practical.
Regardless, though, I gave it a shot. I (somehow) found a time when all three of the English teachers in my school were available and I met with them and introduced the new homework idea. Overall, everyone was very polite. One teacher kept doing his own thing, but the other two teachers liked the idea and were willing to try it out, one of them even being close to retirement. In our next class together, we introduced the new vocabulary idea and explained its purpose to the students.
Well, a week later, on Monday, I got what I had asked for: a giant stack of students’ homework waiting for me at my desk. Over the weeks, as I corrected the students’ sentences and returned them, I started to see improvements such as articles before nouns, better use of the plural, and overall improved writing skills. The pictures that students would draw were creative and I would always post the best ones at the bottom of the next homework assignment, which the students enjoyed as well.
What I took away from this was that no matter how far along someone might be in their professional career, they can still be open-minded. Assumptions about people being set in their ways and lacking confidence shouldn’t impede a newcomer from reaching out to more experienced teachers. Some people are willing to grow even at the very end of their careers. To this day, I still receive messages from those teachers, with creative pictures that their students drew. Overall, I may have created more work for myself, but I felt that I made an impact on my students and my relationships with my colleagues.
Roger Blievernicht is an English Instructor at NIC International College of Japan. He has previous experience teaching for the Himeji Board of Education, along with teaching ELLs at the Arizona Language Center and Vista College Preparatory. Roger has an M.Ed. in English as a Second Language and Bilingual Education from American College of Education.