A little cryptic title for my long-overdue first post in 2013, but I’ll quickly explain. Having a wisdom tooth removed is not an experience I would wish on many people, yet is something I had to go through this past week. A couple of weeks ago I got a pain at the back of my [...]
English Story Contests
Busy times at work. For the past few weeks the time after after my regular classes has been filled (am now the teacher with the dubious honour of having the most classes in their weekly schedule, and I strongly suspect, the lowest salary!). I’ve been working with a student towards our local area’s English Storytelling contest. Last year in the first year I had been involved in JHS competitions, my student was in the top 5, but just got pipped at being placed. And this year on my desk in plain view to everyone is listed my contest goals for this year, including a top-3 place in this contest.
And actually the pressure was a little higher for me for a couple of other reasons. In the other main English contest (the national All-Japan Inter-Middle School English Oratorical Contest), I had coached a very hard-working student to 2nd place in the local area. This was followed by placing 3rd in the whole of Okinawa and qualifying for the finals in Tokyo. There, she placed 2nd in the Kyushu region semi-final, which got her into the grand final in front of over 1,000 people and pitted her against 26 of the best students in the country. She put in a faultless performance, giving her a 6th placing and I couldn’t have been prouder. We had a very good combination of a gifted student, a well-written and thought out speech, and a little bit of assistance & guidance from your author. But now that has set the benchmark and the pressure is on (mainly from myself) to do the same or better this year, and have similar successes in all of the contests.
And secondly, because of the very healthy rivalry I’ve got going with the other junior high school in the town. We are good friends, but both desperately want our students to be the best. He is one of the hardest working foreign teachers in Okinawa, and has had numerous successes in these contests, including winning the aforementioned Oratorical Contest at the national level. This success doesn’t just happen by chance; it happens because of a very hard working teacher/coach with good methods. So I know that whatever student he is coaching in the contest is going to be very good and up there when the results are read. Which means that I’ve got to work even harder to give him as much competition as I can.
So, for the past 6 weeks I’ve been meeting on an almost daily basis with my chosen student (who was picked after auditioning the 12 students who applied for this contest; record numbers of applications for all English contests this year). An appropriate story was chosen (this year, an edited version of Marsupial Sue’s The Runaway Pancake) and practice began in earnest. We’ve been working on memorization, natural gestures, delivery, pronunciation, and the right mental frame of mind for a contest. To take part in the contest and perform reasonably, you only need the first of those, but I really believe to have the best chance of winning you need the latter.
I try to get the student thinking about the contest and imagining it from the offset. I’ll draw the hall layout on the board, telling them where they and everyone else will be seated; I’ll impersonate the MC calling their name during practices; I’ll have them visualize the hall and everyone looking at them before they start talking (often, a student’s biggest fear). Basically I’ll do everything I can to ensure the student isn’t taken aback when they first enter the hall on contest day. They won’t have the nerves that some might have, because they’ll have a mental image of the hall and what will happen during the event right burnt into their mind. Even very gifted students can have attacks of nerves (it’s only natural) so I try to make sure they stay as relaxed as possible. It might not work for every student, but I am comfortable with that style and the students I coach seem to be too. And it could be the tiny difference between winning and losing.
So my student worked hard and got their speech nailed down, and under the 5 minute limit with 15 seconds to go each time. I thought he might have a chance if he didn’t make any mistakes on the day. Unfortunately, the day before the contest we were told that out of 36 students mine would be placed 30th. While there are good and bad sides to a number like this, I’m really not a fan. It means they’ve got around 2 hours of sitting in one place to do, listening to speech after speech and doing nothing, before they perform. If the student can switch off and go into their own world for a couple of hours then they are fine; if they start to listen to speeches and hear good speech after good speech it can make them very nervous.
And then contest day came around yesterday. And the first thing my student said on arrival at the contest venue was just what I wanted to hear. “It’s not as big as you were saying”. Perfect! It meant that the size and scale of the event and venue was not as big in his imagination, which reduced a potentially huge cause of stress for a student. We got there in plenty of time so nobody is rushing about, and had a relaxed lunch. After that it was time for one practice outside, and one simple practice walking on and of the stage. And then it was time for the contest to start.
My student had a few nerves, but just the usual pre-contest type. I was much worse! Mainly because I knew that if he performed as well as he had in his last couple of practices, he had a good chance of being placed. Speech after speech went by; some good, some not so good. In fact, to be honest the average wasn’t so great. I know some schools don’t have foreign teachers working at all, or if they do they may only have them there once a week. But these contests should be the times when the foreign teachers put in the extra effort, especially the teachers assigned to a single school. Take the English Oratorical Contest in September as a prime example. Practice for my student starts in July and I’ll be coming into school almost every day during the summer holiday, voluntarily and completely unpaid, to practice with my student. The reason I’ll be doing it is because I want my student to be successful, and they want success too. And you can be sure that my friend at the other JHS in my town will be doing the same too, which is why both of us will be very unhappy if our students are among the top when the contest results are read out. It would be very easy, and understandable, to say, “I’m not getting paid for working these hours/these days, so I’m not going to come”, but doing that will always give you the “What if…” questions if you’re not successful.
After over 2 hours of speeches it came to my student’s turn, and as he started I pushed the button and my stopwatch started to tick over. His speech was going pretty well, with no mistakes or hesitation. But then I looked at the stopwatch and at the 2-minute mark he was about a line behind where he should have been. At the 3-minute mark this had doubled and with one minute to go he was almost 3 lines behind where he should have been. In the end his speech was 3 seconds over the 5-minute time limit: an automatic one point deduction depending on how strict the judges and timekeepers are feeling. To say I was gutted was an understatement. There were a few really good quality speeches and he needed every point he could get to stand a chance of winning. The remaining students read their stories and I tried to figure out where I’d gone wrong with my student, and why his story was 20 seconds longer than normal.
After an age waiting for the judges to choose the top 3, they returned and went to the stage for the announcement. 3rd place went to a school in a neighbouring town, who I’d actually thought was the best speaker. 2nd place was read out, and I had to double-take when they announced the name of my student! Couldn’t believe it but even going over his allocated time slightly he still had done enough for 2nd place. And first place went to… my good friend and rival from the other school in my town. So once again 2 of the top 3 prizes available in the are went to our town, and both of our students will be taking part in the Okinawa-wide contest in 2 weeks’ time.
We need to work on the timing, but I do like the attitude of my student. “If I’d been under time, do you think maybe I’d have won?” I told him I didn’t know for sure, but we’ll make sure that he’s not asking the same question next time.
Onwards to hopefully some more success!