Friday, October 30, 2009

English Speech Contest Miracle

Hello all!

I know what you're thinking. Geeze, it's been months since Kate wrote on her blog. It must be something really important if she's finally getting back to it. And you're right. It is something really big.

My school went to the Taman-gun English Speech Contest in Nagomi like it does every year. We had a recitation group for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd years in addition to a 2nd year student giving a short (2 min) speech, just like last year. The difference came at the end of the competition, when we won.

Last year, I was so upset. I thought that at least my student doing the short speech deserved to win. He definitely deserved to place. But none of my groups won. And the competition was tough. I discovered that the same schools usually won each year. It was devastating. I couldn't understand what happened. I talked to one of the judges, who was a HS ALT and got some pointers. I needed to know what they looked for. I thought pronunciation, enunciation, speed, and phrasing were the only things. I had no idea gestures would make this speech contest more like a simplified skit contest.

Next year, I vowed to do everything I could for these kids.

And so, come the start of September, with the speech contest around the corner, I started the training. I definitely had some problems. I didn't know how the teachers had chosen the students last year, so I did it by invitation. I got the first and second year groups made in record time. However, when I asked the third year students I hit a brick wall. I asked eight students and they all said no. I finally found one student who wanted to try, but couldn't find any teammates for her. But now I had one student who I'd offered it to and wanted to try, so I needed to find her a group.

We had no permanent place to practice. We started in the library after school. But one day we were overrun by noisy students and had to move across the hall. I hated the room. There were large tables in a big square that took up the entire room. I refused to use it as the basis of our operation. So for a while I only brought the kids into the room when it was their turn to practice, and left the others in the library.

The location issue became worse when the students had to stand up. The room across the hall was large, but the voices rebounded off the walls. The students weren't loud enough. So we went to the veranda that leads out to the garden at the center of our school. We practiced there for only a few days, until I found the art club painting there. I asked the teacher if her students could be quiet while mine preformed so that we could share the space. She said they couldn't. I guess because they had to make sure they all used the same color of blue? Why I had never seen them there last year I had no idea. But by this point I was pissed.

We tried in front of the lunch room, inside the lunch room, and a small courtyard to the side of the lunch room. We went wherever we could that was a large space where the students' voices would not be louder than they really were.

Finally I resorted to waking up early and coming to school so that we could use the gym before class. I had to get the kids out of sunrise which includes a combo of greetings and cleaning. And no matter how much time we managed to get in the gym I wanted more.

The last straw was one of my second year classes closing a week and a half before the contest. I just lost it at this point. I was stressed, I was working twelve hour days, and I had had it. The students would not be able to come to school until six days before the contest. And I was flying out to go to my friend's wedding the day before they came back.

As for the training itself, I had no real plan. Thanks to talking with the judge last year, I knew what I wanted to accomplish. So we just started by becoming familiar with the dialogues, and went from there. After two months of training everyday after school I had a system. And it was time to test it.

When I came back, I had several sick kids on my teams. I had one first year student whose mother would bring her to the competition and then straight to the doctor's office. I had several with colds. And I had one third year student that had been diagnosed with H1N1 and could not attend.

I made the best of it and practiced what we could. I reminded students of gestures, and tricks for pronunciation. By this point I was so screwed up from jet lag I couldn't really stress myself out. So I focused on staying awake by writing comments about the different groups on the presentation list as if I was a judge. If we didn't win I'd have a record of what the judges wanted.

I knew something was happening when at lunch time an ALT from another school came up to congratulate me. The ALT told me my students were doing really well.

I was shocked. I hadn't even allowed myself to think about winning. I still had the 3rd year students to preform and was focused on that. I knew my students had done well, but who knows? Maybe the judges were looking for something else. I also remembered last year: not placing at all.

My third year students were last to preform in the entire contest. We had trained in a group of three, but one student was out with the H1N1 influenza. The other two had learned her part. They had never been in the contest before and I was nervous. With only a few days of practice could they remember all the lines? They had chosen a lesson that many other schools had. The other schools all had at least four students; one school had six.

With our two students, we preformed the same lesson. And did it well. No forgotten lines. No missed gestures.

The judges came back and announced the results. For the second year students, Nankan won 2nd place. I have to admit, I was a bit bummed about this.

For first year students, Nankan won 1st place. This actually shocked me. I thought the relative level of the 2nd years was better than that of the 1st years. Although surprised, I was really happy that both the first and second years had placed.

For the second year short speech, Nankan won first place. By this point I was ecstatic. This was the student who I felt had been misjudged last year. And I felt like I failed him. Because his pronunciation was so good, but somehow I coached him incorrectly.

Well, that was it. I was more than happy. And I thought things were over for Nankan. I mean, the third year students had never done this competition before and they were up against groups with twice as many students, some of who had done the competition twice before. So when the judges announced Nankan had won second place I couldn't believe it.

Every student I had trained, every group I created, had placed in the competition.

When we told our Principle that every student had placed and handed him the two trophies for first place, he cried; just a little.

Last year, no one blinked when we came home empty handed. I get the feeling that happens more often than not at this school.

On the trophy for the first year students there was a ribbon that listed what school won first place for each year. My principle found a ribbon on there from 1986 that said 'Nankan'. It was the only one. And it had been won before ALTs ever came to this town.

That's the miracle I created with my kids in this town. We were so determined that the first year student still came, fever and all, and that group won first place. My third year students won second place with two students doing the work of three (or six). And my second year student in the short speech had all the ALTs laughing as he told them about how he loved his class, 2の3.

And so I'll end the way he ended his speech,

I don't have time to tell you about everyone. But they are all
important to me. Those who always volunteer. Those who are
noisy. Those who are quiet. And those who always sleep. Let's
help each other! My friends, 2の3.