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“How Are You?”

17 July 2010

In elementary school classrooms here, there is a routine. When the chime sounds, the homeroom teacher prompts the nichoku, the student assigned to bring the class to order that day, to perform the perfunctory greeting. The nichoku says “気をつけ” — “Be careful”, “Be ready”.  The class takes a moment to arrange their things, cease their conversations, and focus.  When the nichoku is satisfied that the class is presentable, he or she faces the front and makes a solemn pronouncement: “Starting now, second period will begin”.  The rest of the class bows in their seats, echoing “we will begin”.

In my elementary school classrooms, I also have a routine. After this ritual, and an enthusiastic exchange of “Good Mornings”, I always ask each class “How are you today?”–not to the group, but to individuals.  Sometimes they volunteer. Sometimes I have to nudge them along by calling first on English nerds who sit in the front row.  Sometimes I’m a little sadistic, and call on the kid in back focusing so hard on his textbook that he appears to be severely constipated. By now, I’ve taught them so many, many ways of answering this question. From “I’m hungry” and “I’m sleep” to “I’m thirsty” and “I’m bored”. I always prepare my own new answer each week, too.  Tomorrow’s response, in case you were curious, is “I’m excited for Summer Vacation!”

I insist upon doing this with each and every class for two reasons. First, it puts the students–even the awkward ones who never volunteer–at ease.  It allows them a tiny forum for interaction that they can latch on to, and feel that morsel of success upon its completion. But more importantly, it is language at its most essential–as a means of narrating our thoughts, emotions, desires, and questions. It begins every class with the simplest possible reminder that language is not arithmetic. There is no right or wrong answer–no solution of any kind, come to that. Just how the feeling, and the English they place in its service. Perhaps I’ve only succeeded at mechanizing spontaneity. I can live with that.

Despite their initial reluctance, the students have come to love this. There are still awkward students aplenty, but by now the ones who are excited to be called upon outnumber the stoic ones. And the kids who have actually looked up a new answer in the library’s Japanese-English dictionary, or try to be clever by conjoining emotions with the fascinating new word “and”, increases by the week. The homeroom teachers have overcome their concerns about the disorder this injects into their classroom, too. Two weeks ago, one 4th grade teacher responded by shouting “I’m feeling SEXY! WHOOOO!”–followed by his best Michael Jackson impersonation–replete with a cringe-inducing pelvic thrust and attempt at a moon-walk. Some people, clearly, are just too sexy for elementary school.

This past April the 6th graders graduated, and entered the junior high school where I also happen to teach. I knew I was in for trouble when I asked the first class how they were doing, received an ecstatic jumble of responses, only to have the homeroom teacher jump in and correct them. “Actually”, she opines, “you should say ‘I’m fine, thank you, and you?’ whenever Haru-sensei asks you that question”.

I didn’t fight it, and I didn’t question.  It’s not my classroom, and I don’t get a say in how class time is appropriated–not with the next test always around the corner.  Instead, I resorted to guerrilla tactics to sustain the tradition I’d built with these students. I always gave a slight nod to the students who still insist on shouting their own answer.  I made a point of stopping students in the hallway and chatting them up–not that I haven’t always done that.

Today, I asked Homeroom 4 how they were doing and, with irreproachable synchronization, twenty-seven boys and girls shouted back “I’m fine, thank you, and you?”. Miyazaki-sensei nodded approvingly. So I picked up the flash cards, thinking of my favorite poets the whole time.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Moira permalink
    21 July 2010 1:13 am

    I want you to know that my French teachers used to do the “Hello class, how are you?” thing and expect us to say “Fine thanks, and you?” in response and it drove me nuts. I mean, sure you’re using the language but why ask if you don’t actually want to hear the response? I guess it’s good to know the formal polite response, but in general people asking how you are and not wanting to know is one of my pet peeves. So, even though it makes no difference at all, I want you to know that I’ve got your back on this one. And I like your strategy of asking individual students and getting individual responses.

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