Essays on English in Japan

The class that was not a class

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The worst class I ever had to teach was a class on testing. The whole class was testing and nothing but testing. It was my worst class ever: an English test preparation class. From the beginning of class, students did not chat, check their homework, or move their pencil bags around. Instead, they were quiet, uptight, and tense. They sharpened their pencils to get ready to fill in the little ovals on the answer sheet. I tried to be cheerful, but really I loathed it.

At the beginning of every class, students took a practice exam, either grammar, listening or reading. As they worked, I sat in my chair at the front like a zombie, or a zombie in front of testing zombies. I was bored sitting there as they worked and relieved when I could finally stand up and call out, "OK, time's up!" Most students would slump back in their chairs and groan, while a few would hastily scribble in a few last little oval blanks. "A+ for oval-filling," I occasionally joked, but they could hardly even smile in response.

Then came the worst of the worst: reading the answers. "Number one: A. Number two: C. Number three..." and on and on to the end. Students paid attention in this class because their advancement in the program depended on the results, but they paid attention with sullen resignation. They occasionally would say, "Sorry, what? B or D?" and I would start to say things like, "Number eight: B as in boring," or "D as in dead," or "C as in seasick." Students rarely smiled at this either.

They counted up their correct and mistaken answers in silence and sometimes did not dare count the total number, but just stared at the correct letters on the answer sheet. I tried to walk around and check their scores, but they knew how phony this was, that I was only trying to encourage and console them. They were consumed by the test in a way they never were consumed by any other class subject. They were overjoyed by their correct answers and distraught over their mistaken ones. It was melodrama.

Then came an even worse part of the class: explaining the answers. Students would ask, "Can you explain why C is the correct answer on number 15?" Or, "Why is B wrong on number five?" It is a lot harder to explain test questions than why the sky is blue, why a character in a story falls in love, or how you can study better. Basically, the explanation came down to this: "That is the wrong answer because it is wrong." I found many different ways to say this same basic thing. They stared at me with sullen eyes.

Of course, I explained the right and wrong answers in a cheerful voice (which they probably hated) and gave examples to show why it was wrong or why it was right. But no matter what I did, the class was not really an English class; it was a Testing class. None of the language in the class was about the meaning of life or the problems in the world or the feelings and opinions of students; it was all about the test. The test language took over from our true ideas, feelings and opinions.

What I really hated about this class was how it erased my individuality along with the students'. I had basically become an employee of the testing company, a kind of salesman for their product, repeating a sales spiel scripted by the company. I didn't offer any self-created ideas or opinions; all I did was restate the test language. The students of course said next to nothing. We were speaking test English, so that whatever we said reinforced the entire test system, or, more accurately, the testing industry.

After the class, students were often so discouraged they had no heart to return to essays, movies or stories. The contrasting shift between taking the practice tests and then analyzing a story, giving opinions and actually thinking in English was too much for most students. The students became test-taking robots, while I was the test-giving, test-explaining robot. Shifting from coldly robotic to deeply human was just too hard. The test answers were like harsh, angry words yelled during a lovers' quarrel. It was impossible to concentrate afterwards. Their love affair with English was falling apart.

Since I had nothing to do while the students took their tests, one day I started to take the test with the students. I wanted to put myself in their position, to understand the questions from inside and maybe be able to help them understand it better. The strange thing was, I would almost always miss one or two questions! I'm a native speaker, reasonably educated, and yet, every time, I also missed a couple questions.

At first, I was embarrassed, and frantically searched to see if the exam was wrong, but finally, one day I confessed that I had missed two of the answers. The students were stunned. They thought I was joking, or trying to trick them into feeling better. I told them that I disagreed with the answers given and could not accept the way the question was framed. Needless to say, this confused students.

Up until then, they had trusted the test to be perfect and correct. At first, I hesitated to let them think there was room for error. I worried that letting them know the tests were not perfect would damage their motivation. After taking the exam myself, though, I moved over to the students' side, and gave up my role as shill for the testing industry. I realized I was on the same side as they were.

Then, finally, I confessed to the students I hated this test, hated the testing class, and hated testing in general. Immediately, I felt released, as if I had been cast under some magic spell by an evil force in a fairy tale and finally uttered the magic words to release me. The students and I, together, started, little by little, to laugh at the test, and not let its power destroy our basic love of learning and not ruin the other classes. We made jokes and said what we thought. We stopped taking it so seriously.

As we went on in this way, our own thoughts and ideas re-entered the class, and we could again use human language, not testing language. We decided that the test had failed, not any of us. If there were tests for tests, most tests would fail. And with that attitude, we got through the semester, and turned the class, ever so gently, ever so subtly, back into a real class.


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Michael is currently teaching at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, in the American Literature section of the English Department. More information in the About Me page.