Cambridge Academy: Year Four and Five

It’s all coming together. Or is it?

You can read previous Academy posts here:

  1. Extensive Reading for Secondary Students (April 2015)
  2. Six Months In (September 2015)
  3. Year One (February 2016)
  4. Looking at Year Two (March 2016)
  5. Stocktake (March 2016)
  6. Shadoku explained (April 2016)
  7. Some improvements to the curriculum (April 2016)
  8. December 2016 update (December 2016)
  9. Cambridge Academy: Year Two and Three (March 2017)
  10. Cambridge Academy: Stocktake 2017 (March 2017)
  11. Cambridge Academy: Another Quantum Leap (April 2017)
  12. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Mid-Year Update (August 2017)
  13. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Student Progress (October 2017)
  14. The Academy Fluency Course (March 2018)
  15. Cambridge Academy: Stocktake 2018 (March 2018)

This year was a solid one for the Academy but we definitely had some ups and downs.

Mistakes were made (by me)

Let’s start with the downs: we screwed up badly not just once but twice. The first mistake was getting a bit cocky about the Academy and changing the way we explained it to existing students.

In the past we’d gone into each class with 6th graders in, introduced the Academy and encouraged them to join. Almost everyone did.

Last year, we asked everyone to come to a special explanation session on a Sunday, then asked them to come in again in January and line up to sign up for the days they wanted. Only about half the students joined.

This is a mistake we’ll be paying for for the next five years, as we have a year that is quite a bit smaller than it should be. Looks like we’ll have 22 second-year students next year, spread over three classes of 4, 6, and 12 students. Doubly regrettable because the Academy classes work much better with at least ten students in.

This year we went back to the original, more humble model and right now halfway through the explanations pretty much all our 6th graders have signed up. If all goes well we should end up with 28 first-graders in three classes.

The second mistake was delegating too much. As planned I assigned a teacher to each class, but then failed to monitor them as closely as I should have (in my defence we had some pretty serious issues crop up this year that took a lot of time at first and then burned me out later).

As a direct consequence of me not paying enough attention to how the classes were going, the current first-year classes in particular are not where I want them to be, and all the reading classes have gone slightly off course.

Nothing too serious, but changes will be needed next year.

But lots of good things happened too

Despite the lack of attention from me, the classes mostly went well and students learned a lot. We did Eiken last month at the school, and 78 out of 82 students passed the paper test. Last weekend we did interview practice, and everyone was basically okay to pass. This is very encouraging, as our student body is very mixed and doesn’t just consist of elite students.

We wrote 2/3 of the A3 output course, and it turned out really well. I’m proud of all our materials, but this might be the best one yet. We also finished one year of the A5 advanced course.

Very few of our students quit. We lost a handful to graduation and three quit, but we’re hoping to have a healthy intake and we also had four students join from outside. Hopefully that is the start of a trend 🙂

Student numbers

Junior high school 1: 28? (still in the process of pitching to parents)
Junior high school 2: 22
Junior high school 3: 30
Senior high school entry class (1-2 year students): 10
Senior high school advanced class (2-3 year students): 11

Pretty encouraging. It will be interesting to see how many of the new JHS 3rd years stay on into high school, as they were our first big year.

Also, the mathematically gifted among you will notice that this would give us 101 students, finally reaching our longstanding goal of 100 students in the Academy. Eventually I am hoping we’ll have something like 200 in the program (see below for how this may be possible).

Future plans

We’re going to rent the third unit on the ground floor of our building. This will give us all the car parking spaces (an additional four) plus get rid of the grumpy guy that used to rent it so no one will be complaining about our students going forwards. This extra unit will give us about 280 new class places and allow us to have all junior high school levels of the Academy, plus one high school level, every weekday.

I’m going to be much more hands on with the reading classes next year, and with the junior high school first year output classes. This will allow me to develop them a bit more and address structural problems (as well as train our teachers).

I’m going to take another leaf out of SEG’s book and try to find supplementary reading material for our beginner levels. At the moment the students read sets of readers with CDs, but I would also like to mix in picture books and other reading material that they might find interesting. A big work in progress.

We’ll finish the A3 course and start working on our final level, A4. We’ll also write a second year of the A5 course. This will complete the Academy materials, at which point we might start working on a course for elementary school students.

Outlook

The outlook is good. I am not going to be able to be as hands-off next year as I was this year, but I think the program will get a lot stronger because of that.

We will be in a position to recruit hundreds of new students next year, including almost 100 new Academy students, so we will need to start working on advertising for April 2020 from now. It’s going to be intense but also kind of fun 🙂

Cambridge Academy: December 2016 Update

img_8650
Academy beginner book section (YL0.1-0.7)

You can read about the Cambridge Academy in previous posts:

  1. Extensive Reading for Secondary Students (April 2015)
  2. Six Months In (September 2015)
  3. Year One (February 2016)
  4. Looking at Year Two (March 2016)
  5. Stocktake (March 2016)
  6. Shadoku explained (April 2016)
  7. Some improvements to the curriculum (April 2016)

Well, a lot has happened since my last post about the Academy (July 2016). We have had several schools visit, and I have talked to lots of people, and I have realised that in order for someone to start a program like the Academy in a school, the following four conditions are necessary:

  1. the desire and autonomy to begin a program
  2. the knowledge of ER to explain it to teachers, parents, and students
  3. a critical number of junior and senior high school students
  4. a large amount of money for books

So far I haven’t talked to anyone with all four of these, so we are putting our plans to license our system on hold. After all, if there are no potential customers it doesn’t make much sense to develop a product, right?

I’m still very happy to answer questions and give what advice I can though -feel free to leave a comment on this post or drop me an email.

Progress Report

We’re approaching Year Three for the Academy, and a lot is going well, and some things are going less well. We haven’t seen the growth I was hoping for (100 students are still out of reach), but we have a solid 70-some and next year is looking somewhat hopeful to break three figures.

1. Shadoku/Students that didn’t do shadoku last year

Our new first year reading curriculum incorporating shadoku is working extremely well. This year’s first year students are possibly doing better than last years’ (who are now second years). The second years are struggling a bit and I am trying different things to help them out, including having them re-read at a much lower level, etc. Not sure if the situation can be fixed completely, but at least we’ll do better going forwards.

We’ve also bought a lot of new books, particularly at the intermediate and advanced levels. Still not enough, but much closer to being able to meet our students’ future needs.

img_8651
Academy intermediate book section (YL0.8-2.9)

A few of our students are really taking off with their reading, breaking the YL2.0 barrier and becoming more independent and motivated readers. It’s wonderful to see.

img_8652
Academy advanced book section (YL3.0~)

I would say that somewhere over half our students are doing really well, and most of the others are doing okay. Maybe 20% are not doing well, and I hope some of them can be salvaged. Most of the ones who are not doing well started off badly, and I wasn’t skilled enough at the time to notice or help them.

2. Student reading targets

I’ve also noticed that students that read a certain amount are doing well, and those that read less are not. Using this data, I have come up with provisional weekly targets that we’ll start using next year with our students:

JHS1 2000-5000 words a week (100,000-250,000 words a year)
JHS2 3000-7000 words a week (150,000-350,000 words a year)
JHS3 4000-10000 words a week (200,000-500,000 words a year)
SHS1 4000-10000 words a week (200,000-500,000 words a year)
SHS2 5000-15000 words a week (250,000-750,000 words a year)
SHS3 6000-20000 words a week (300,000-1,000,000 words a year)

Based on these a student that joined our program in JHS1 and stayed with us until the end of high school would read 1,200,000 to 3,350,000 words. I predict this would provide them with some pretty decent English skills. The targets include in-class reading as well, so students with decent reading speeds might be able to clear the target just by reading in class for 55 minutes a week.

These numbers are provisional and we’ll probably adjust them after working with the students a bit next year. Looking at our current student data though, they seem reasonable. For comparison, in my university classes I require students to read 8,000 words a week to pass the course and 25,000 words a week to get a top grade.

3. Original junior high school output (speaking and writing) curriculum

We’re currently working on making our own curriculum for junior high school students for the output (speaking and writing) classes. As I mentioned in the improvements to curriculum post, the output classes have actually proven to be extremely important, and in the future we’ll be recommending students take both classes if at all possible.

Reading classes are much more profitable, but so far the results of students that only take reading are not satisfactory so we’ll have to abandon that idea as a profit centre 🙂

We should have the original curriculum for JHS1 ready to try from April, and then develop year two in 2017 and year three in 2018. Using the new curricula, we will now place junior high school students in their equivalent year class instead of trying to stream them by ability. High school students will be streamed by ability/level.

4. Assistant teachers

We have a couple of assistant teachers this year. They were students in the program last year, and are now attending local universities. We asked them to help us out as part-time staff.

The huge advantage of recruiting assistants like this is that they are very familiar with the system. It’s a win-win: we get dependable and skilled assistants that we know and trust, and they get to continue their English studies while doing fairly well-paid and interesting part-time work.

Best of all, this model should be fairly sustainable: I would expect we’ll have at least one suitable student per year graduating and we can keep them for four years while they are at university.

5. The next steps

Right now we need to do a few things before the end of the year. I would like to write a student guide to the curriculum that explains what they need to do. I think this will help students and their parents get more out of their classes.

We also need to buy some more books, although we can probably slow down a bit now.

Another stocktake will have to happen at the end of the year and book purchases to fill in holes.

We’re going to need more shelves soon too.

We’ll also be taking over another school and inviting their students to join our program from April. Hopefully this will build up our numbers a little bit.

All good stuff. I’m really looking forward to how the Academy develops as we go into our third year.

Anyone else working on extensive reading systems? Any questions or comments?

Review: Question Quest The Language Card Game

We’ve been trying out Question Quest for the last few weeks at Cambridge English.

question quest

 

We love AGO, the UNO-like simple English question game, and David Lisgo’s Switchit card games.

When I saw Question Quest’s website I was extremely interested. It seemed like it would appeal to our teenage learners and complement our existing card games so I ordered a copy immediately.

Once it arrived I was impressed with the production values. The game is very attractive, with incredible artwork, quality materials, and a sturdy box.

The good

  • The artwork is beautiful and very appealing to Japanese teenagers
  • The game includes English and Japanese instructions
  • The materials are high-quality and pretty sturdy
  • The language covered is very appropriate for our students
  • Cards include example sentences to help students
  • The gameplay is interesting and more skilled players are more likely to win
  • Students practice strategies such as asking for more information, asking a third party, and expressing their lack of understanding
  • Reasonably priced (1575 yen for over 100 cards)

The bad

  • The game as written takes a long time to play (probably 20-40 minutes), which was a bit long for us
  • It took a while for us to understand the rules, both teachers and students
  • Some of the example questions on the cards are a bit unintuitive

Overall

This is a very promising resource. We normally do some kind of game or activity in the last 5-10 minutes of class, so found that Question Quest did not quite fit in that time. However, we were able to adapt the game (teacher asks the questions to students, playing without the conversation strategy cards, etc.) to fit the shorter time.

We also took some time and played some full games. Lots of fun and the students are practicing useful conversational gambits.

Overall I recommend Question Quest to teachers of teenage or young adult students (although it would certainly work with the right group of adults too). It’s an attractive and versatile resource. A single pack is a very reasonable investment for a small classroom: teachers with larger classes would need one set for each group of up to 4-6 players.

Has anyone else tried this game?

My ‘almost’ mini-lesson

Unfortunately, many students in Japan are taught that ‘almost’ in English is ‘hotondo’ in Japanese

almost

Sadly this is not true, so over the years I have developed a short mini-lesson to correct this false impression and help students better understand the meaning of almost.

The lesson can start at any time, but it requires a trigger: one of the students must translate almost as hotondo.

Once that happens, I quickly go through the following steps:

  1. I point out that even though many teachers and textbooks teach this, almost is not the same as hotondo
  2. I pretend to trip, and then say “phew, I almost fell over just now”
  3. I ask the students to translate the previous sentence: “hotondo korobimashita” sounds really strange, so clearly hotondo is not a good translation here
  4. I tell the students I planned to go to Tokyo this morning, but ended up not going. “I almost went to Tokyo”
  5. Hotondo Tokyo ni ikimashita” also sounds weird
  6. I offer two alternative translations for almost: mou chotto de ~ and ~wo suru tokoro datta
  7. I explain that hotondo is actually almost all in English: mou chotto de zenbu

Of course, this illustrates vividly the perils of learning and teaching vocabulary out of context, which provides another excellent mini-lesson for the students 🙂

Do you have any favourite mini-lessons?

Taking students to summer camp in the US

This is a guest post (the first on this blog!) by a friend of mine, Ryan Hagglund. He has an extremely promising variation on the usual study abroad trip that I thought you would find interesting. Enjoy and let us know what you think in the comments.

Summer camp 1

After many years of thinking about it, we finally took students from our school (MY English School in Yamagata) to the US for the first time this summer.  Thanks to all the advice and stories I read and heard from others, the trip was overall a success and will hopefully serve as a building block for many more to come.

My impression is that most international trips English schools organize involve some form of formal study.  While there is obviously nothing wrong with studying—we ARE a language school—it seems like there’s plenty of time for the students to study while in Japan.  The main purpose for us in going was to give the students something they couldn’t receive here: the opportunity to interact with large numbers of English-speaking children of their own age.  We wanted to give them an experience that would lead to greater motivation and increased interaction skills, among other things.  The instrument we chose to accomplish this was to have the children attend a summer camp intended for children who are native speakers of English, not English learners.

We chose Warm Beach Camp in Stanwood, Washington.  We chose Warm Beach for several reasons.  First, it is the camp I attended when an elementary and JHS student, so I was familiar with the facilities.  Having attended almost 30 years ago, however, I no longer had connections to any of the staff.  Second, it is a large facility that not only has many activities for campers to do, but was also able to house our staff away from our students but still onsite.  Third, it gave considerable value for the price.  Camp was only US $399 per student for six days and five nights—including meals—and they supplied free room and board for our staff in a separate onsite facility.  They also provided free sleeping bags and pillows to our students.  (Warm Beach is a Christian camp facility, but we were careful to make sure our students and their parents were aware of this.  There are most likely secular camps with similar facilities and value.)

Summer camp 3

We took five students—two boys and three girls—ages 9-13 (Japanese elementary 4th grade to JHS 2nd year).  There were approximately 80 campers all together ages 9-11 (US 4th to 6th grade) divided into cabins of six or seven students each. Our 13-year-old student had no problems relating to the younger campers, though JHS 1st year would probably be a good cutoff.  Since none of the US campers nor counselors spoke Japanese, the students had to navigate in English.  What was nice, however, were the many activities the children were able to participate in, allowing them to interact in English without consciously having to overly focus on the language itself.  Some of the activities they participated in were: field games, swimming, archery, horseback riding, canoeing, wall climbing, BB-gun shooting, mini-golf, and a bonfire.  While it was challenging for them at first, by the end of the trip four of the five students said they would like to stay longer.  The fifth (12 years old) said she was glad to have come, but just ready to go home.  We were only with the students for a daily meeting each evening, when pre-activity safety instructions in Japanese were necessary, and when a student became homesick and needed a little extra support.  We had a pre-paid US cell phone so the camp and/or counselors could reach us at any time if necessary.  They only called us once.

While the camp was our focus, we did do other activities as well.  Our schedule was as follows:

Saturday Aug 3 – Arrive in Seattle and tour the city
Sunday Aug 4 – Visit Wild Waves Theme Park
Monday Aug 5 – Saturday Aug 10 – Attend camp and Seattle Mariners baseball game (Aug 10)
Sunday Aug 11 – Return to Japan

We will probably add an additional day of Seattle sightseeing if we go again next year.

Camp positives:

1)     No need to be concerned about the quality of homestay families.
2)     No need to worry about logistics for most of the trip.  While at the camp, we were able to focus entirely on the students’ linguistic and emotional needs, while enjoying ourselves for most of the time.  The camp took care of the rest.
3)     No need to think of specific language activities, as the situation itself required meaningful English interaction from our students.
4)     The camp wanted the trip to be successful as much as we did.
5)     No need to pay a third party for special arrangements.
6)     Students needed very little spending money.  Each student brought 20,000 yen in spending money, but none of them came close to using it all.
7)     Since almost everything was included in the camp price, there were fewer opportunities for financial surprises.
8)     24-hour onsite certified nurse, removing the need for us to worry about student sickness and/or injury.

Camp possible negatives:

1)     We did have to plan the logistics outside of camp time.  This included airline booking, three nights of hotel, sightseeing in Seattle, and transportation to and from the camp.  While not difficult, might be hard to leave to a school teacher or staff member not familiar with the Seattle area.
2)     Not as appropriate for students who would prefer a “travel experience” versus an “immersion experience”.

All in all, it was a very successful trip—especially for a first time.  We are already working to produce marketing materials for a similar trip next year.

Summer camp 2

 

Ryan Hagglund is President and CEO of MY English School in Yamagata Prefecture.  He has lived in Japan for 15 years and originally hails from the Pacific Northwest.  He is married to Maki Hagglund and has three children: Aiden (8), Ian (6), and Sean (4).

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