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British Hills in Fukushima

Some corner of a foreign field…

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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).

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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

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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 facilities

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’.

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The main building housing classrooms, the Refectory (dining hall), swimming pool, gym, etc.

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The tea shop, which we didn’t have time to sit down in but looked good.

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The dining hall, modeled on an Oxbridge college Hall.

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One of the student dorm buildings.

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A common room in one of the student dorms.

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The pub.

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The tuck shop, which I was initially excited about, and then very disappointed with. None of the snacks are British!

Lessons

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.

Food

We had three meals on site.

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Lunch was fine. It was filling, hearty, inoffensive, and kind of British.

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Dinner was excellent.

Breakfast was fine, buffet-style like a hotel. Not great quality but filling.

Staff

The staff were without exception all great. Friendly and welcoming, there was a really nice atmosphere throughout the site.

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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.

Overall

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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Eikaiwa School Field Trips: Summer at the Zoo

yagiyama zoo

Every year we organize some kind of optional summer event for our students. Past events have included ice skating (feels weird to put on sweaters and gloves in August!), outdoor games, playing in a river, and trips to the seaside. This year we decided to go to Yagiyama Zoo in Sendai with our preschool- and elementary school-aged students.

Before the trip we visited the zoo to plan out routes and activities, bought small sketchbooks for all the students, divided them into groups and assigned teachers to lead each group.

There was a slight problem with the timing of the announcement coinciding with the school being closed for some classes, so that some parents only got the announcement letter after the trip was full! We did our best to accommodate them which led to us needing a larger bus and the groups getting a bit too big for the number of teachers we had (several were away due to the summer holidays).

Then the day before the excursion the weather reports changed from sunny with cloudy spells to rain (60%). Then that evening rain (70%). The next morning the ground was wet when we woke up at six am, but by seven it was raining. By eight thirty (the deadline for making a decision) it was raining heavily.

Fortunately we had a plan B. We had made arrangements to go to the aquarium at Matsushima in the event of rain. This was not ideal, but preferable to cancelling and being out of pocket for the bus hire and other expenses.

The problem with the aquarium is that we hadn’t had time to visit and make plans. It was also much more expensive than the zoo, and smaller. We weren’t sure if there was enough to do there for the four hours we had planned.

Lessons Learned

We learned a lot from this year’s trip. Here are some of the most important things:

1. Having a plan B is essential if weather could impact on your trip. What were the chances of the only rainy day for weeks and weeks being the day we were going to the zoo? Because we had a plan B and had told the students and parents about it our trip wasn’t ruined. However, we should have put more time into getting ready for plan B.

2. Accurately estimating demand, making sure the sign-up process is fair to everyone, and sticking to deadlines and limits on numbers of students is important. We didn’t have any major problems this time, but the large numbers of students made things more difficult for our teachers (I found myself supervising sixteen young children for much of the day, and it was too many for comfort).

3. The number of seats quoted by bus companies include those fold-down seats in the middle. I don’t like them because they are uncomfortable, seem less safe, and mean that it is not possible for teachers to move around the bus when they are in use. In the future, I would like to make sure all the students have a proper seat, with only teachers in the middle seats if necessary.

Conclusion

In the end the trip turned out well. The aquarium had just enough to keep us busy (looking at the fish, drawing pictures, watching the sealion show, shaking hands with a sealion, meeting baby turtles, wading in a big pool, etc.). It was also great that they had a large seating area that wasn’t at all busy, so we could sit the students down in groups and talk to them, have them draw pictures, and eat lunch in an orderly fashion.

I think we were both unlucky (the weather) and lucky (everything turned out fine and the students enjoyed themselves). We also got a few insights for next year.

Does anyone else do field trips?

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Taking Students to Europe (2013)

london and paris

After the (semi-)successful study trip to Australia’s Gold Coast in 2012, we decided we wanted to do something similar this year.

In Australia, the best things we did were as a group, and the worst part of the trip were the host families, so this time we tried to put together a kind of eye-opening cultural tour, with a week in London and three days in Paris.

The students were interested but their parents weren’t. “Sounds like you’re just going on a trip”, they said, and weren’t open to the argument that it was the kind of trip that most kids in Japan never have the chance to make.

We quickly rethought our plans and changed the trip to incorporate a week’s homestay/English classes in London with three days in Paris. Seven students signed up, fewer than the ten we had set as a minimum. I wanted to cancel, but the school manager decided to press ahead as a learning experience.

We went with a company in the UK recommended by a friend of mine. Big mistake.

The problems

1. The school we partnered with for this trip was disorganized and unprofessional. The frequently forgot things, failed to deliver on previously agreed conditions, and three days before the trip emailed me saying “we couldn’t find the last homestay family for you, so let’s just refund your money and call it quits”. Our office manager physically collapsed when I relayed that message. I was able to broker a solution eventually, but it was incredibly stressful. After we arrived, instead of providing staff to guide us on field trips as agreed, they dropped us off at various places leaving the teacher accompanying the students to try to salvage things and provide tours and activities on the spot. Classrooms were booked at the wrong time, activities were booked on the wrong day. Scheduled activities had to be changed because they were not available on Sundays, and so on. Instead of providing classes for each level of student (we had three different levels of ability) they just provided two. None of this was said in advance, it just happened and we decided to just get through the experience without upsetting the students rather than argue.

2. Organizing everything ourselves meant dealing with airlines, hotels, transport companies, schools, museums, restaurants, etc. Once we were in country, the sole teacher on the trip had an excessive amount of responsibilities and stress. For example, on the last day we had a guided tour of Versailles including pickup from the hotel and drop off at the airport, but until the minibus actually turned up we couldn’t be sure it would happen so had to have a plan B in place. Everything turned out okay in the end (I don’t think the students noticed the problems) but it was a bit too intense.

3. Due to a last-minute venue change (from London to Cornwall!) we ended up needing to take two long (6-hour) journeys by minibus. This was a bit of a waste of time. I found out later that we could have toured London first, then made our way to Cornwall, then flown from there to Paris, which would have been a lot better.

4. There were a large number of unanticipated supplementary expenses, from meals to transport to laundry, and as the organizers we felt responsible for these.

The benefits

1. We actually had nice homestay families this time (which is 90% of the battle). Also, Cornwall is a great place and the students enjoyed getting to know it.

2. Touring London for one day and Paris for three was fantastic. The students were blown away by the buildings, the museums, and the ice cream 🙂

3. Despite the unanticipated expenses above, and not having enough students, the trip was slightly profitable.

Things we learned

1. Partnering with good people/organizations is essential. Trying to pick up the pieces after someone else drops things is exhausting and stressful, as is making contingency plans on the fly. We will be much more careful in the future.

2. It’s vital to balance activities and downtime for the students. Making sure they have some time to relax and time to themselves each day is really important. I feel we managed this well on this trip.

3. It’s preferable to take two teachers. We were able to have a former teacher join the group in London and Paris, and it made a huge difference. Having two teachers spreads the worry, allows each teacher to have a little time off, and provides a backup in case of accidents. It’s also great to have one teacher wait with the group while the other buys tickets, etc.

Overall

This was a good trip overall. Students that went on both (the former Australia trip and this one) said this time was more fun and interesting. We did a lot, and I have almost 1000 photos to prove it.

However, it was far too stressful and could have gone wrong. For future trips we will need to do more preparation and research.

We’re thinking of going to Canada or Singapore next year. Anyone know any good schools? 😉

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Taking Students to Australia (2012)

australia

Late in 2011, we received a cold call from a company offering study trips abroad. Ordinarily we don’t take sales calls, but we’d been considering an overseas trip for a while, and so we sat down with the rep to get more information. He turned out to be a former high school teacher, and was very personable and informed.

Their prices were also surprisingly cheap.

By the time we came to a decision, it was mid-January, leaving us precious little time to recruit students to go. We decided to go to the Gold Coast of Australia for ten days to do a language study and homestay program. The company would organize everything. The cost was around 300,000 yen, we were paid 10,000 yen per participant, and one teacher (me) would be able to go along on the trip for free.

We had a mixed experience.

The problems

1. Some of the homestay families were less than stellar. This was probably the worst problem and one of the most difficult to avoid as a school. Specifically, we had families that refused to let the children do laundry or use the phone, families that only spoke Chinese at home, and families that left our students in a car for three hours. Thankfully we didn’t run into anything more serious. The agency, when pressed on this, passed the buck to the local language school. The school? They said that due to the late booking they had been forced to deal with families they hadn’t worked with before.

2. The local language school providing the lessons was Japanese-owned. All the students there were Japanese. All the companies they dealt with, including the riding school we went to, were Japanese-owned and operated. On the one hand this provided our students with a comfortable environment, but it kind of negated the benefits of going all the way to Australia.

3. The agency took a large profit (I estimate around 100,000 yen per student) and didn’t really provide anything that we couldn’t have done ourselves. They also did things like taking the students to pushy shops where they received commission on sales, something I didn’t find out about until after the fact, when some of our students ended up buying semi-precious stones as gifts.

4. One of our participants did not have the social skills to deal with the new environment and the other members of our group, which made things quite difficult at times.

The benefits

1. The students enjoyed the trip, and came back completely energised and motivated. They had experienced an English-speaking environment and seen that it wasn’t as hard as they had thought but also that their skills were nowhere near good enough. All of them have done much better in their studies since coming back to Japan.

2. Going through the agency meant that we had to do little preparation for the trip.

3. The school is now able to advertise study trips abroad, which enhance its image.

4. I really enjoyed spending that amount of unstructured time with the students and ended up much closer with many of them.

Things we learned

1. The more layers there are between you and the final product, the less control you have. As we had no dealings with the local school that actually arranged everything, we were not able to head off problems or confirm our requests in advance.

2. The agency was not worth the money they received.

3. Doing pre-departure briefings and post-return feedback sessions is very good. We also had the students write essays about the trip, translated them so we had English and Japanese, laid them out and had them printed professionally as a souvenir. It cost about 1000 yen per copy, but was well worth it as the families were very happy and we got a few extra copies to use as publicity for the school.

4. Having time all together at the end of the trip (we ended up staying in a hotel for two nights as there was a problem with the flights) is a great way to end a trip on a high note, and gives the students a kind of ‘reward’.

Overall

Overall, I’m glad we did the trip. It was an interesting experience for the students and me. As a school, it gave us a start in organising our own study abroad trips. With what I know now, I would have done it differently (asked a lot of questions and insisted on talking to everyone involved) but we were lucky: even with the problems detailed above, we didn’t run into anything serious.

Stay tuned for part 2, taking students to Europe and organising everything ourselves!

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Taking Students Overseas

ANA plane

I just returned from our second overseas study trip with young learners. It was one of the most exhausting things I have ever done, and involved a large amount of stress for a relatively small return.

Taking students overseas can be a very positive activity for an eikaiwa school:

1. It can be profitable
2. It can raise the school’s profile and image
3. It can be hugely beneficial to student motivation

However, there are also huge potential risks:

1. Worst case scenarios are really bad, and could prove fatal to the school
2. It can involve a huge amount of supplementary work
3. Unexpected expenses can eat up your profit and even push the trip into the red

After two ‘successful’ (I define successful as not having encountered any serious problems) trips, I have learned a huge amount about what doesn’t work. The next two posts will be detailed trip reports and reflections.

Does anyone else organize overseas trips?