Academy business curriculum extensive reading high school JHS junior high school language courses Language learning school management SHS
You can read about the Cambridge Academy in previous posts:
- Extensive Reading for Secondary Students (April 2015)
- Six Months In (September 2015)
- Year One (February 2016)
- Looking at Year Two (March 2016)
- Stocktake (March 2016)
- Shadoku explained (April 2016)
- 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:
- the desire and autonomy to begin a program
- the knowledge of ER to explain it to teachers, parents, and students
- a critical number of junior and senior high school students
- 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.
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.
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.
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?
My first video for the iTDI Making ELT Videos course
The second week assignment for the iTDI Making ELT Videos course was to make a video. Here’s my sad attempt 🙂
It was rushed, shot on two devices, edited with Windows Movie Maker (which in my opinion is complete garbage -need better software). No music, had real trouble putting the screenshots in (hence the messed up audio from halfway through), didn’t do proper lighting, forgot to add links and a call to action…
BUT, I learned a huge amount and had fun. Looking forward to doing a better job with the second one.
An interesting possibility
I’ve been a big fan of reading Kindle ebooks for a while now, but so far I have done all my reading on my iPhone. I bought a couple of the earlier Kindle eReaders but never liked them: the page turning, the form factor, something about them just wasn’t as good as reading on my phone so I didn’t use them much.
Last week though, Amazon were doing a deal where the latest Kindle was 5,000 yen off, so I picked one up for under 4,000 yen.
And loved it. It’s light, the screen looks great, and the pages turn in a pleasing manner. It’s a bit too easy to touch it by accident, but not a deal-breaker.
So far, so good. It’s a nice device, and the prices are coming down so fast that these things are practically disposable now.
And that’s what hit me. On Thursday as I was showing some teachers around the Academy, it struck me that Kindle could be the answer to our high-level book problem.
You can sync multiple devices to the same account (my account is linked to a dozen: computers, smartphones, tablets, and all those old Kindles).
So instead of buying hundreds of paper books that are going to lie around taking up shelf space and rarely being read, I could buy books on my Kindle account, buy a couple of Kindles for the Academy, sync them to my account, and lend them to our students. Heck, at 3,000 yen each we could just give them to the students 🙂
I already have close to 1,000 books on there (although 90% of them are fantasy, science fiction, personal finance, productivity, or teaching) and it would be easy to pick more up as needed.
The school would appear funky, students would probably appreciate the novelty, and we wouldn’t need anywhere near as much space for marginal books.
What do you think? Genius or what?
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Some corner of a foreign field…
I finally had the chance to visit British Hills in Fukushima last weekend. If you are not aware of British Hills, it’s basically an ‘English village’ run by the Kanda Foreign Languages Group that doubles as a hotel and language training centre. They are located in the mountains of Fukushima, 25 minutes drive from the nearest convenience store!
The resort was running a special summer tour for teachers (basically a PR exercise) and I was able to join it alongside 28 other teachers. We spent about 24 hours there, arriving on Friday morning and leaving on Saturday morning. It was extremely interesting and worth doing if you are thinking about taking students there. The study visit costs about 12,000 yen, which basically covers the food and transport costs. Accommodation and lessons would be much more if you were paying (more on prices later).
Weirdly, we had British weather the whole time: misty and cool. The resort is in the mountains at 1000 metres altitude, so it’s much cooler than the surrounding area in summer. Apparently they get up to 2 metres of snow in the winter though!
The schedule for the visit
The event was extremely well run, and we had a number of the sales and management staff (including the President) come up from Tokyo to join in. To be honest, it was an extremely full schedule, and we felt a bit rushed. There was no time to walk around or relax on the tour.
The buildings and grounds at British Hills are probably the best thing about the place. The whole complex is beautiful and is very ‘English’ in a stereotypical way. Lots of lawns and Edwardian houses. It definitely fulfills its role as ‘an English village in Japan’.
The main building housing classrooms, the Refectory (dining hall), swimming pool, gym, etc.
The tea shop, which we didn’t have time to sit down in but looked good.
The dining hall, modeled on an Oxbridge college Hall.
One of the student dorm buildings.
A common room in one of the student dorms.
The tuck shop, which I was initially excited about, and then very disappointed with. None of the snacks are British!
During the tour we were able to attend or watch the following lessons:
- Introductory lesson/orientation (English)
- Tour of main building (English)
- Tour of dormitories and main student building (Armory) (Japanese)
- Information about B.H. study programs (Japanese)
- Survival English (English)
- Lesson Observations (2) (English)
- British Table Manners (Japanese)
- Calligraphy (English)
My impression of what we saw is that the Japanese orientations (PR pitches) were pretty good, the content lessons in English and Japanese were very good, and the language lessons in English were pretty poor. The lessons I saw (which I presume are the best lessons) struck me as something a first-year ALT might do. Lots of running but most students are not doing anything for most of the time. I was expecting much more and this was the most disappointing aspect of the visit, particularly as students pay 3000 each for these lessons, so with a full class of 20 you are paying 60,000 yen to have students do criss-cross for 90 minutes.
The calligraphy lesson we took was very good, as was the lecture on table manners. I imagine the cooking lessons would also be fun.
Based on what I saw, the language lessons are not worth doing, but the culture and craft ones might be.
We had three meals on site.
Lunch was fine. It was filling, hearty, inoffensive, and kind of British.
Dinner was excellent.
Breakfast was fine, buffet-style like a hotel. Not great quality but filling.
The staff were without exception all great. Friendly and welcoming, there was a really nice atmosphere throughout the site.
Some of the teaching staff.
Apparently there are twenty-three foreign teaching staff, and twenty other foreign staff on site. As the resort is open all year round, they presumably are working shifts and taking holidays. My impression is that there were not as many foreign staff as I was expecting. To be honest, they were kind of thin on the ground. British Hills, at least while I was there, did not deliver the kind of English immersion I was expecting.
The resort did have Japanese staff that were doing their best to interact with visitors in English, but the few interactions I witnessed seemed a bit forced and the resort staff’s English was not perfect, even when dealing with junior high school students. Of course, this would not be important outside of the context of an English immersion experience.
Overall though, the friendliness and warm atmosphere was a credit to the resort.
Prices and Location
Now this is the killer. The resort is located about 40 minutes drive from Shin-Shirakawa shinkansen station. The resort operates shuttles, but I’m not sure if you have to pay for them. From Sendai, it’s basically two hours door-to-door by shinkansen, or three and a half by coach.
The prices, both to stay and for lessons, seem a bit high to me. The resort has a high season (July to September) and a low season (the rest of the year). Prices are slightly lower in the low season. There are also different prices for schools, universities, individuals, and groups. It’s all very confusing.
My impression is that it will cost 15,000+ yen to stay and 3000-5000 yen per class per student. They seem to be empty in the winter, so it may be possible to negotiate a better deal then.
I was both impressed and unimpressed with British Hills. The facilities are amazing, the staff are really friendly, it’s inconvenient to get to, the prices are a bit too high for accommodation and ridiculous for lessons, and the language lesson quality is poor.
Overall I would not write it off, but you would have to be very careful when designing your program to make it worthwhile. I get the feeling their standard packages would be a poor value.
It was an interesting couple of days though. Thank you British Hills for the invitation and the hospitality, and hopefully I’ll have a chance to take some students there at some point.
Has anyone else visited British Hills? How was it?
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I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time.
On April 1st this year the language school I help out at started a new section called Cambridge Academy. Getting ready for this and implementing it over the last four weeks has been a really fun challenge, and now that we are taking a little break for the Golden Week holidays I feel like I have some lessons to share.
In this post I will talk about what we are doing, why we decided to start a new sections, and a few problems and successes we have had.
Why start a new school?
Several reasons. The main one is that we weren’t happy with our existing junior and senior high school classes. It seemed that while the most able and motivated students could do very well, others did not. We gave students many chances to do work outside of class, and the ones that did got better and the ones that didn’t, didn’t. We were looking for a way to improve that.
I was also able to visit SEG in Tokyo, and see their incredible resources and program. This inspired me to start something similar in Sendai, and we have benefited hugely from using Akio Furukawa’s experiences and advice in setting up the program.
Finally, the academy format and the results we are hoping for seem to be quite commercially viable. While my main motivation with the school is to provide students with excellent education, it’s nice if the school pays for itself too.
How does the Academy work?
There are two main concepts behind the Cambridge Academy. The first is to provide students with the chance to receive large amounts of comprehensible input through graded and leveled readers, alongside speaking and writing activities. Initially the input was based mainly on books but we quickly realised the power of reading with CDs so we have since changed this to books with CDs.
The second concept is to do 55 minutes of reading/listening in the school each week. This ensures that all students will receive at least 40 hours of reading/listening per year, or 200 hours over the course of the five years we envision the ideal program lasting (JHS 1st grade to SHS 2nd grade). Of course, motivated and ambitious students will do much more at home, but with the in-class reading system ensures that all students will make some progress.
The students will also have a speaking class with a focus on production, a writing assignment each week, and the chance to do online vocabulary study with Word Engine.
What have you done so far?
At first the main stumbling block was space: we needed an extra classroom that could house the books and other resources as well as accommodate twelve students. Luckily the apartment above the school became available in March, so we quickly rented it and set it up for school use. As the Academy classes are pretty much silent, we shouldn’t have any problems with the neighbours or the landlord.
Next was gathering resources. We already had a large graded and leveled reader collection built up over the last twelve years or so, but it wasn’t enough to serve the fifty or so students who started in April, let alone the numbers we would like to see eventually. After several large orders to englishbooks.jp and Amazon, we are still playing catchup and will probably continue buying books throughout the year (this matches my experience at Tohoku University, where book resources never quite seem to meet student demand).
Main bookshelves at the Academy.
The next step was to develop a system to determine what students would do, how we would track it, and how to organise resources. Here we benefited immensely by being able to copy a lot of what SEG does. The interesting thing is that we found ourselves adopting elements of the SEG system that didn’t make sense to me at first (like having books organised in sets with CDs, and having students read while listening).
Book sets organised using ziplock freezer bags.
We had a couple of CD players when we started classes, but after I saw how much the students enjoyed listening as they read I quickly bought ten more so that we could offer a player to each student. Personal CD players can be found on Amazon.jp for between 1500 and about 5000 yen. There seem to be limited numbers as these products are no longer popular. We have also failed to find CD players that can play MP3 CDs for a reasonable price (there is a Sony model that costs about 25,000 yen, but this seems a bit too high to me). An ongoing project.
We have also noticed the need to keep track of what each student has read so that we can give them new books in a timely way. Right now the best solution appears to be a checksheet that we will put in each students file so that we have a record of that they have read. This is also a work in progress but it is going quite well.
Checksheet to track student reading.
Results so far
The first four weeks have been great. Students seem to enjoy the format and even the students who don’t seem to enjoy English classes do the reading activities willingly. About half of the students do homework, the others do not. My policy here is to encourage and support, but leave it up to each student as to how much they want to do.
For the school, the format means that we can serve up to 24 students each weekday evening (four six-student speaking classes and two twelve-student reading classes that alternate). In practice this means that three teachers can take four classes, which increases the profitability quite a bit. The schedule looks like this:
Class A speaking with Teacher 1
Class B speaking with Teacher 2
Classes C and D reading with Teacher 3
Class C speaking with Teacher 1
Class D speaking with Teacher 2
Classes A and B reading with Teacher 3
From a business perspective the profit per student in the Academy system is higher than other classes. We charge 15,000 yen a month plus tax for 44 two-hour classes a year, so I think this is a good value for students too (they would have to pay more than that each month just to buy the books they end up reading).
The specialized knowledge required to set up the system, and the cost of books and other equipment (we’ve spent over a million yen setting up the Academy, and we already had thousands of books) means that it would be difficult for other schools to copy our classes if we are successful.
Most of all, it is wonderful to see the students enjoying their studies, and achieving success each week. The Academy style classes also work very well with students who have social issues. For a teacher, it’s a very fun class to run and I hope our students will find themselves doing better at school.
Well, we’ll continue developing the system and trying to improve it. I suspect motivation may become a problem for some students once the novelty wears off, but I haven’t seen this so far. Hopefully the combination of success and the contrast between an hour of reading/listening and the rest of their busy day will help stave this off.
Business-wise I would like to see the Academy grow in size, and if it gets big enough I would like to move it to a new location in the city centre to increase our catchment area. Ideally this would happen in the next year or two.
So far I am very pleased with how things are going. I’ll post an update in September or so and let you know how we are doing. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments.