Common Core Values

This is an activity on recognizing our own core values. I’ve done it with high school students and adults. It’s a good way to learn about people around us and ourselves. To begin with, give everyone a copy of the worksheet.

If necessary, ask students to use a dictionary or ask their classmates and translate each word to their native language. My high school students know around half of these words. It might take 5-10 minutes to look everything up.

We’re trying to find out what values we hold dear, and we do this in several rounds, shortening the list each round.

  1. Cross off ten values that you don’t think are as important as the others. Don’t think too much, because we have several more rounds.
  2. Make pairs, and show your partner what you have so far. Then, on your partner’s list, find two or three remaining values (i.e., values they haven’t crossed off) that are similar in nature, and ask which of these they think matters more. For example, Which is more important to you, honesty or integrity? or Which matters more to you, peace or safety? Do this for three pairs, and then switch roles with your partner.
  3. On your own, circle ten values that you hold most dear. This should take four or five minutes.
  4. Make new pairs, and ask your partner three questions. From their ten values, choose any two, and ask them, Which of these is more important to you? Why? After your questions, switch roles and repeat. When asking questions, your job is to listen. Ask your partner which and why, and do not give them your opinion.
  5. On your own, underline five values that you feel are the most important. This should take two or three minutes.
  6. Take a few minutes and show your sheet to people around you. Look and see where you overlapped with them.
  7. Time permitting, ask students to write about what they felt or learned.

This activity could take thirty minutes. You can adjust the rules for each round according to time constraints and group energy.

Depending on your goal for the class, you can frame the activity in terms of understanding yourself, or you could emphasize surprising differences in the community (i.e., consensus bias).

Oceans Game

This is a team-building game, but one of the key lessons is about cooperation and community.

In a classroom, make a 4m x 4m using string or tape to show the boundaries. Move all desks and chairs to the side. To prepare, get 16 foam mats. You can probably buy these at the dollar store. If possible, get 12 of one color and 4 of another. Let’s suppose you have 12 brown mats and 4 black mats.

Put students in four teams of roughly even numbers. Give each team 4 brown mats and 1 purple mat. Then explain the rules. Optionally, show these slides to students.

  • The goal is for everyone to cross the ocean.
  • The square in the middle is the ocean. You can’t walk around.
  • The brown mats are islands. You can place them in the ocean, but once placed they cannot be moved. If an island has no feet on it, it goes away. If an island has three feet on it, it sinks.
  • The black mats are whales. A whale can be placed anywhere, but it cannot be moved. It lasts for 10 seconds before disappearing.
  • You have four minutes. How many people can get across the ocean? Go!

As you play the first round, one or two teachers should supervise, answering basic questions about what’s permissible, forbidding students from doing things that are likely to result in injury (e.g., trying to jump 4m), and taking away islands and whales in accordance with the rules.

Use those rules or make adjustments based on numbers of students. Try to make it somewhat difficult for students to all get across the ocean. This encourages creativity.

After the first round, give them some discussion time and see how they could do better or faster in the second round. Use leading questions if absolutely necessary. This is where the game gets interesting.

Depending on how exactly you set up the rules and logistics, there are several ways to solve the problem, and one of the neatest ways is sharing mats with neighboring teams. Sometimes, focusing too much on your team is problematic. Sometimes, helping everyone is the best way to solve the problem. Moreover, that was the game’s explicit goal!

This is a gimmicky game, and it would be better for you to experience or see it rather than read about it here. Give it a try with your own class and leave a comment with your results.

Culture and Thought

At my high school we have a comparative culture course. Originally it was called Comparative Culture and then later the name was changed to Culture & Thought. Content has varied from year to year, and here are some of the noteworthy topics.

There are several general topics: Japanese culture, foreign culture, foreign language, cross-cultural relations, and how people think (which is often cultural). The course has always been a mixture of workshops, guest speakers, hands-on experiences, presentations, and writing. If you’re scheduling something similar in the future, I hope you find some good ideas here.

Tea Ceremony. Our school has a tea club, and the coaches of the club are wonderful old ladies who are willing to teach classes of students, too. The university has two tea rooms, and learning and doing the tea ceremony in a proper location is a memorable experience. Afterwards, ask the students to write a report (PDF, ODT) on the topic.

Flower Arrangement. Our school also has a flower arrangement club. If students take a class with the coach three times, they can get a beginning level flower arrangement certificate, which is quite neat. Also, flower arrangement class is a great time to have a photo contest.

Karate. I did karate for five years in Akita, and my coworker Mr. Shirota is also a black belt. We used to do two-hour workshops, where students would learn a little about the history of karate and then practice a simple kata. Here is an information sheet (PDF, ODT).

Showa Museum. The museum is dedicated to life of the average person in Japan during and after World War II. The war is a huge topic for students who study or live abroad, and a visit to this museum is well worth the time. It is located in central Tokyo. You can easily visit JICA in the morning, have lunch there (if you reserve a room), walk by the Yasukuni Shrine, and visit the Showa Museum in the afternoon.

World War II. Two social studies teachers at our school, Mr. Osaka and Ms. Matsuoka, can give great lectures on the war. There was a weapons factory near the school back then, and with some research one can go on a short field trip to places hit during bombings.

Hiroshima. Every year we took our 10th grade International Course on a field trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima. Kyoto has the temples, and Hiroshima has the war history. Starting from Tokyo, it’s possible to do the two cities over a long three days. Four days would be better.

Tourist Presentation. If you’re taking a trip somewhere, you probably want to have students make some of the plans themselves, and if they already have plans, why not make them do a presentation where they pretend to be a travel agent trying to convince tourists to visit the area? Here are the rules (PDF, ODT) and an example.

World Holidays. Make groups. Each group chooses one holiday or festival from somewhere in the world. They show a short video (from YouTube, for example), and give a short speech explaining what the holiday is. A simple variant of this is to give presentations about customs instead of holidays.

Honduras & Vietnam & Hungary & Qatar. In college I studied abroad in Hungary, and in graduate school I lived in Qatar. Mr. Fujita worked in Honduras, and Ms. Tanaka worked in Vietnam. At any large school, you will find teachers with international backgrounds, and if the schedule allows, invite them in your class for an hour or two.

Exchange Student Presentations. We try to host exchange students each year, and when you host exchange students, it is absolutely worth asking them to give two presentations: one on their home life, and another on their native language. Exchange students are not professional teachers, but usually they develop a close bond with their classmates, so issues of clarity and time management are not a big problem.

ALTs. We have had a handful of great ALTs over the past few years, and when given creative freedom, they can create great things. Example topics: notions of beauty around the world, university in AU vs NZ vs PH, culture shock, poverty, and the perfect classroom.

TUFS. The Tokyo University of Foreign Studies has a student group called くらふと, and they visit elementary, junior, and senior high schools and do workshops. You can request various topics. The student group has a wide variety of students, both Japanese and international, and some of them study very obscure languages. Several times we asked them to focus on challenges and goals of study abroad, and once they did a workshop on the global aspects of cell phone manufacturing, from rare metals in Africa to assembly factories in Taiwan.

Guest Speakers. Ms. Watanabe knows a woman who works for Doctors Without Borders, and this woman occasionally has the time to visit the school and talk to the students. My mom’s old high school classmate teaches at Tokyo Science University, and he has given several workshops on developing skills useful for university and working life. One year we asked some people from the U.S. Embassy to give a presentation on women in the workplace. Another year we invited a man from JICA (ODA) to give a talk about the SDGs. Also, Kimiko’s husband Nave has given great presentations on Israel and animal rights over the last three years.

Study Abroad Training. This is a series of slideshows, each of which could be used as part or all of a lesson. The materials are designed for students who might study abroad, either in high school or university, or live or work abroad at some point in their lives.

Board Games. Explaining things in any language is surprisingly difficult. One way to feel this is to put students in pairs, assign each pair an obscure board game, give them time to prepare, and ask them to teach the game to two other pairs. This is a delicate activity but works well with a motivated group. Here is the description and an evaluation sheet (PDF, ODT).

Participation Rubric. The class is largely participation-based. Twice a year, my students evaluate their own participation using this rubric (PDF, ODT). I include this as a portion of their grades.

Video Journal. In an effort to improve students’ speaking skills and get them to think about themselves, we did a series of video journals. Attached is the rule sheet (PDF, ODT) we used, but you can easily modify the topics and details. Students might want to make fancy videos, which is acceptable but not required. Teachers should occasionally remind students to keep it simple. This should be a fun light-weight series. Some topics are quite personal, so if you are going to show students’ videos to the class, either tell students this in advance, or let them choose among several submissions.

Diversity and Discrimination. Learning about foreign cultures is important, but it’s also important to recognize diversity in our own. I often touch on discrimination, and if students are serious enough, it’s a great thing to study in detail.

Diversity and Discrimination

It’s surprising how different people are, even if they’re from the same town and go to the same school. This is exciting, and it’s also not obvious, but if you take some time to help students learn about themselves and others, they’ll start to realize.

Janelle, an ALT at my school, gave a wonderful little workshop on beauty. She opened by giving students 2 minutes to find a picture of something beautiful and then we looked at all of them. In a class of twenty-one, the only cluster of similar answers we saw was three students who chose Korean pop idols. Three out of twenty-one. That was an eye-opener to me and to our students, and it’s a cool illustration of the false consensus effect.

MLK’s I Have a Dream speech is sometimes taught in junior high school English classes. In 2020, Black Lives Matter became a global movement. One of my coworkers spent many class hours on feminism and women’s rights last year. There are so many great topics, and choosing them depends on your interests and your students’ willingness to engage.

Here are some materials that connect with diversity.

  • Who You Are. This card game is a great ice breaking game for new classmates and new teammates.
  • Oceans Game. This gimmicky game helps students realize that teamwork is much more open-ended than we sometimes believe.
  • Common Core Values. This is an activity where students learn about what values they and their classmates think are important. It may surprise students to see the variety of opinions in the class.
  • Culture and Thought. This is a class that focuses on cultures around the globe. Many topics and activities in it expose students to cultural diversity.
  • Diversity Lesson. Put students in groups and ask them to create and deliver a presentation on diversity or discrimination. They can choose their topics, but they have to show clear examples. Here are the files (PDF, ODT).

Here are a few slideshows on discrimination.

Reading Explorer Extras

Here are some unofficial resources for two textbooks, Reading Explorer 1 and Reading Explorer 2 (3rd edition). In Asia, these are published by CEngage.

Vocabulary Lists

Vocabulary Quizzes

These are quizzes on the website Quizizz. Homework mode is a handy review tool, because students can take each quiz several times as they learn the words. Ideally, ask students to learn the twenty target words for each chapter in advance, using a dictionary as needed. Knowing the key vocabulary before starting the chapter is a good way to boost student confidence, and it doesn’t take a long time to memorize twenty words.


Why do you do your job? More specifically, what are the motivating factors for this job, other than convenience, finance, and logistics?

Many years ago the university president asked me, Where do you see your students going? The vice principal later asked, What kind of students do you want to produce?

The other day, the principal mentioned Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, which is another way of getting to the same question. Sinek said, Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do. 100%. Some know how they do it, whether you call it your differentiating value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP, but very very few people or organizations know why they do what they do.

The “what” for a language teacher is easy. Language classes should mostly be some kind of four skills practice that is around 95% review. If your students are doing that, they’re probably learning.

The “how” is a big question, and there are many teaching styles. Much has been said on the topic. If you’re a contract teacher, this is where you spend most of your prep time. You take an activity that’s OK, tweak it slightly, and get 5% more value from it. You take a complicated explanation and find a few simple examples that illustrate the rule clearly. You find some new technology and smoothly integrate it into your lessons. If you have pride in your work and try to improve, over time you will. Training seminars target this.

Training seminars can’t tell you why it matters. They can’t tell you why you should care, and why you would want to keep doing the job for a long time. That’s something everyone has to figure out for themselves. You can talk with others, read blog entries, and watch TED Talks, but then you still have to find your own answer. Here’s mine…

Studying foreign language is always interesting if you want it to be. I’ve studied Japanese since 2001, speak it reasonably well now, and sometimes people ask me how I learned. I tell them, In many ways. There are many ways to practice a language, so if you’re bored with one, dozens of other study methods are waiting for your attention. This goes hand-in-hand with life-long learning.

Learning a language makes you learn about yourself. When you start learning a foreign language, you can’t speak with subtlety, so when you have to talk about yourself, it’s natural to speak plainly and simply. Simple language encourages us to be honest with others and ourselves. Also, many people speak less aggressively in their non-native languages, which can help avoid pointless conflict, and it also lets us reflect on how we speak in our mother tongue.

Learn forever. You can’t learn everything, but you can learn forever. Basic information and global skills are necessary, but you can’t learn it all. Therefore, if we want our classes to provide long-term benefit to students, we should help them learn about themselves, how and why they might want to learn and keep learning things, and give them some specific skills for acquiring new knowledge in the future.

Understanding discrimination is hard. For example, I didn’t really understand the difference between racism and xenophobia until my early 30s. Even if you personally have witnessed or experienced discrimination, it can be hard to recognize and decipher. The issues are complicated and often we feel things strongly but don’t know exactly why or what to do. If we expose students to examples of historical discrimination, or contemporary discrimination elsewhere, the barriers to entry are low. They can learn about things like stereotypes and systemic discrimination without being forced to judge their own society, at least not yet.

War is bad. When you live abroad or make strong international friendships, you realize that nationality isn’t or shouldn’t be important. Let’s care about the whole world, not just one country.

We need critical thinkers. We have the power to solve or mitigate many major societal problems, if we work smart and work together. But large-scale problem solving is complicated and time-consuming, and many people don’t like that. If we can get students to appreciate the value of critical thinking when they’re younger, maybe they’ll keep using it later in life.

We need dreamers. Critical thinking and problem solving help you get places, but you need somewhere to go. That’s where dreamers come into play. There are so many good questions that involve dreaming. Where do you see yourself in ten years? Is there a place you really want to visit once in your life? If you had to change jobs, what would your new field be? How can you make your community better? What kind of household do you want to live in? What is your perfect day? Where do you want to live? Who do you want to be? Why?

That’s a long enough answer for now. What’s yours?

Learn Their Names

Learn your students’ names. Really. It’s one of the simplest ways to make your classes go better, one of the most important things for any teacher to do, and all it takes is some time and energy.

Why should you learn their names? They’re people, and it’s basic respect to learn who they are. Also, these days there’s so much great online learning. MOOCs are amazing. You can learn a ton from YouTube. What is the school adding, one might ask? Part of the answer is personalization. As we learn about our students, we help them develop general learning skills, and we also find out their interests and tailor our lessons in ways that keep students engaged.

How can you learn your students’ names?

  • Ask them. Even if you’ve asked them before, ask them again. It’s embarrassing if you forgot, but people can tell if you’re glossing over their identity, and in the end that’s far more embarrassing.
  • Use their names. If you remember a student’s name, say it out loud when you’re talking to them. This reinforces your memory.
  • Take attendance out loud at the beginning of each class.
  • Use name cards or name tags. If the school doesn’t already have them, make them just for your class.
  • Look at the seating chart before and after class.
  • Look at the photo roster before and after class. Most schools have a photo roster for each class, so go find it and make a color photocopy of it.
  • Make digital flashcards from the photo roster.
  • Learn some facts about your students. If you know a bit of information, such as their club, or if their big brother or sister is a student at the school, it’s easier to remember their name.

It doesn’t really matter how long it takes for you to learn everyone’s name. Here in Japan with an April start, it’s my goal to learn all the names by June, but in some years it’s taken me until September. Students are quite forgiving at the start of the year, so long as you keep working to learn who they are by the end of the year.

Perhaps you’re a new ALT and you can’t read much Japanese yet. You might think to yourself, Hey, you know, I’ll never learn to read their names. Fortunately, you’d be wrong. There’s hope! Choose one of your classes and make physical or digital flashcards for the family names. Study the flashcards for five minutes a day twice a day for a week, and you should be able to memorize them all. A month later, start on another class. In Japanese, family names are fairly standard, but first names have all kinds of strange readings, so focus on the family names first. If you want to learn to read kanji, you have to start somewhere, and why not start with the people around you?

While you’re at it, learn all of the teachers’ names too.

World Holidays

Several years ago I made some posters for a poster presentation on world holidays. This year we decided to use videos instead. The presentation style is that students choose a festival or holiday from somewhere in the world, find a 1-2 minute video online, show that to the class, and then give a 1-minute presentation with details of the event.


The above PDF was written with JHS students in mind. However, you can easily adapt it for use with high school students. Change the sentence count to 10+, and require students to explain invisible aspects of the holiday, such as history or symbolism.

A simple variation of this project is to present on a custom instead of a holiday. For example, students might talk about tipping (U.S.), washing graves (Japan), or red packets (China).


  • Children’s Day Example. An example presentation about Children’s Day, a Japanese holiday.
  • World Holiday Rubric. A standalone rubric to be used when grading.
  • Holiday Summary. A worksheet for students to write notes about classmates’ presentations.
  • Videos and Questions. Some short YouTube video links and questions. Use these one-per-class leading up to the presentation itself to give students an idea of what kind of videos would be good.
  • Guess the Holiday. A slideshow where students read a hint and guess the holiday.
  • Holiday Reading. Several paragraphs about some world holidays. These are good for reading comprehension or speaking practice.
  • Chinese Zodiac. A bit of information on the Chinese Zodiac. Take some time and explore what your sign says about your personality.
  • All of the files along with editable originals.

Study Abroad Training

Many of my students study abroad for a short or long time in high school or college, and some of them go abroad for all of university. I created a series of slide shows to help students learn about some interesting and challenging issues that come up when one moves to another country.

These are loosely based on What’s Up with Culture created by the School of International Studies at University of the Pacific in 2004. Many things have changed since then, especially technological improvements to language and navigation that make international travel much easier than it once was, but the cultural differences still remain.


Translation Troubles

It is guaranteed that your students will use online dictionaries and translation websites, on their phones, tablets, or computers. There are many productive ways to do so, but it’s guaranteed that sometimes your students will act in unproductive ways, too. As a result, it is worth spending some class time looking at good ways to use technology and common ways it’s misused.

  • Dictionary Use. Two excellent dictionary websites and screenshots of proper use.
  • Dictionary Fail. Examples of how using a dictionary wrong leads to bizarre results.
  • Online Translation Fail. Examples showing how online translation services can majorly mix things up.
  • Good Keyboards. Screenshots of typewriters, computer keyboards, and finally some soft keyboards on tablets showing why the QWERTY layout is generally best for English writing.

Here are some likely scenarios and reactions you might have.

  • Too Much Dictionary. If you assign difficult topics, some students will look up a large percent of the nouns and verbs in a dictionary. The result is typically illegible. You can’t give them credit for such writing, but if there’s time for a rewrite, give them a chance. Also, keep in mind that obscure topics involving obscure vocabulary take longer for students to write, and they are likely to start writing too late.
  • Google Translate. Many students try to write using Google Translate or other paragraph translation sites and apps. It’s usually fairly obvious, but sometimes excessive dictionary use looks the same. If you get writing that looks like it was auto-translated, call the student during break time and ask them how they wrote the thing. If you manage the conversation right, students will usually be honest. You can’t give credit for auto-translated work, but letting students redo it with a lower score for being late is reasonable.
  • Paper Dictionaries. If students use paper dictionaries, some of the above risk goes away. Looking up words takes longer, and there is no auto-translate for paragraphs. If your students all have paper dictionaries — supposing they were required to purchase them for another English class — then you can take advantage of the books for in-class writing assignments. At home, students are probably going to use their handheld devices.
  • Motivation Questions. If you do a lot of writing, establishing the long-term goals is crucial. When students write essays, ask them to put the word count and time spent writing at the bottom of each essay. Through regular practice, their speed could easily double or triple over the course of a year. Tell them this. If they track their own times, they’ll see and feel the improvement.
  • Level Gap. Most of my students were born and raised in Japan. Their Japanese is really good. If they form complex thoughts and and expressions in Japanese first and then try translating these to English, it might not work. One framing idea is: If you were a sixth grader, how would you say this in Japanese? Take your current ideas and put them into easy Japanese. Now take that Japanese and write it in English.

You should tell students not to use Google Translate for writing, but some of them will ignore you, at least some of the time. Over the course of the year, you might want to come back to dictionary and auto-translation problems several times, specifically looking at things that students are trying to say but couldn’t, and brainstorming strategies for what to do. Many students want to write well but feel like it’s too hard, so they fall back on auto-translate. Such students appreciate explanations and advice for how to learn and write better. A few students might keep using auto-translate, and that’s unfortunate, but you can sigh, give them the zero, and spend your time on other things.