Scooter vs Japan

Why is he slow? | October 21, 2015

A little while ago, I was asked to help out some students with their presentations. All of the grade 8 students were writing Silver Week holiday recommendations for me, but a handful hadn’t finished. Since the group was pretty small, I ended up helping one student almost exclusively.

This student, who I’ll call Kevin, was having a really hard time writing in English and was thus slower than his classmates in completing his presentation. Just about all of the work was already there, but he was taking much longer to write it. I did my best to help him out and correct a few mistakes he made so that he could do well in delivering his presentation. Basically, that was that, and I walked away having done my job.

Fast forward a few days, and my brain almost broke. The class was working on a translation assignment, and I couldn’t help but notice that Kevin was working a bit more slowly. But there were other kids who were working slow or being lazy, so I thought nothing of it… until I noticed more things.

The observation

In no particular order, I started to see some unusual behaviour. Kevin was overwriting when making corrections. From time to time, different letters or parts of them were darker, having been written over more than once. I didn’t really see him doing this in Japanese, but he was over-correcting when I saw him make a mistake (he tried overwriting, but then erased the whole word to write it again). I also noticed that he was getting help from the student next to him, and even seemed to have some trouble copying the Japanese the other student was writing, as if he needed more time to work. I also noticed that when he wrote in English, he was writing letter by letter, with irregular spacing in between each letter. It was here that I started to think harder. See, when Kevin was working in the computer lab on his presentation, he was hunting and pecking as he typed. He was processing the language letter by letter, just like how he was writing.

On it’s own, none of this looks that odd. Maybe his motivation is down. Maybe he’s just not very good at English. But no. Now I was seeing something. I had a hunch that something else was happening.

So I kept walking around the class, but paid more attention to see how everyone else was doing. Patterns started to form as I looked at the other students’ writing and behaviour. What immediately popped out was the clarity of everyone’s writing. In a grade 8 class, after only a year and a little of formal English education, you’d expect to see some students having messy writing, but it didn’t stop there. Nearly every single student had a pattern. The kids who wrote messy in English were also writing messy in Japanese, while those with neat writing continued to have neat writing in both languages. But Kevin’s writing was inconsistent. His Japanese was really good, but his English was messy and spaced out, unlike what I was seeing from everyone else.

Again, not really anything by itself, until I looked closer. Kevin was trying, unlike other students working at the same pace who were joking around or sleeping. There was more too it. Kevin has really inconsistent writing in both English and Japanese. As he wrote, his writing kind of wandered along the lines, moving up and down with no real pattern. It’s as if the line were bending or he couldn’t actually write along them straightly. And I recall that during an earlier speaking repetition exercise, I could no longer hear Kevin’s voice, as if he’d become lost.

And that’s when I knew I was onto something. I picked up on Kevin’s behaviour because I do the same things. I hunt and peck as I type, I sometimes struggle with writing in a straight line, I overwrite like crazy, I struggle when writing in Japanese and almost do so character by character, and I needed extra time in school to process what’s happening so I can complete my assignments. I have trouble reading along with text and can get lost easily in a difficult task. I do many of the same things, and this resonated with me.

Flashback

I remember being a kid, struggling through school with two parents with wildly different ideas about education and help. While my mom simply wrote me off as being lazy, bored, unmotivated, or whatnot, my dad took special efforts to help me with homework. He had no special training, and at the time wasn’t yet (I think anyways) working in high school kitchens as a part of the culinary programs where he works today. He had no special insight into why I had trouble in school, except for the fact that he did too. I would only learn decades later that my dad, like child me, probably has an undiagnosed learning disability. He took more time to help me because he instinctively knew that something was going on.

Back to the Present

Was I seeing Kevin’s behaviour because I might know what he’s going through, just like how my dad did with me? Initially, I thought he was just behind or whatever, but then I started to think it’s something else. And why was I picking up on all of this? I think I know the answer.

I think Kevin is dyslexic.

While it’s easy enough to pass off this kind of behaviour as being unmotivated or unskilled, it kind of takes one to know one. Even in English, dyslexia isn’t well understood. Heck, I’ve never even received a formal diagnosis for it, though I’ve been thrice diagnosed with related conditions and just connected the dots.

Now, I’m not a doctor, a psychologist, or an education specialist. I’m not going to pretend I know everything about dyslexia or even the broad topic of learning disabilities. And maybe I’m completely reading this the wrong way. But I’ve finding this to be really interesting, and the rabbit hole seems to keep getting deeper.

Japanese people aren’t dyslexic

A quick Google search turned up some fascinating articles on Japan and dyslexia. I know from prior studies that the Japanese hive mind prevents students from being properly identified with many kinds of learning disorder since that separates them from the pack and makes them individuals. I know that, if Kevin was dyslexic, he probably didn’t know or has ever thought about it. But it gets more interesting.

See, a number of scientists have been looking into the claim that Japanese people aren’t dyslexic. I even read a claim that one could not be dyslexic in Japanese since it’s pictographic language doesn’t really permit this kind of behaviour, and that dyslexia was basically an English problem. Frankly, research has proved this to be complete nonsense. What’s really at play here is that Japanese people don’t identify these situations and know even less about them that we do in the West. I read some stats presented by some researcher that said Japan’s rate of dyslexia was several times lower than in the West, but was likely just as high due to a lack of proper education, diagnostic tools, and support systems. Like I said, if Kevin is dyslexic, it’s extremely likely that I am actually the first person to notice due to this complete lack of information and training surrounding this.

So…?

What does this mean? I’m not really sure. As compelling as what I observed was, it’s not enough to make any kind of decision or diagnosis. And given how Japan treats this kind of topic, it’s likely that having a diagnosis wouldn’t do Kevin any good. Handled the wrong way, he could be ostracized by his peers and demeaned by his parents and teacher, and removed from normal classes, instead of being empowered or understanding why this is happening. Misunderstood, this could throw up a block on English and related activities, citing that they’re just too hard to bother with, instead of better understanding how he needs to succeed. And for me, stepping in with claims that a student is disabled is a pretty bold move in a culture where I’m expected to come and go like the wind.

But I can’t help but wonder what could be done. Another site I read was about the accounts of two Japanese dyslexics who are calling out for people to better understand their struggles. They want to learn, they want to do well, but they simply never learned how. Knowing about my own learning disorders empowered me to work harder because I now understood what was happening. I learned what pitfalls there were and how to overcome them. I learned how to learn. And it was all because of those diagnoses. To better understand this could turn around the lives of kids like Kevin. To be able to notice this… it means that I can give him better and more appropriate attention. And if I can get a diagnosis or learn more, I can try and get something going in the classroom to help him succeed.

Japanese people are dyslexic

All of this highlights a greater issue that perhaps only a foreigner can see. Japanese people are just as capable and incapable as anyone else. These kids are just kids, just like kids their age in Canada. They have the same struggles and problems that kids in Canada do (even juku, after-school school, because that’s actually a thing in Canada). Recognizing that Japanese are just like me or you or the guy down the street, we can approach a problem the same way. Japanese people can be dyslexic, and understanding that can make me a better teacher, even if I’m wrong about Kevin. If a kid’s struggling, it doesn’t immediately mean that he’s a bad kid or a trouble maker. If a kid is having trouble in English, it doesn’t mean he’s unmotivated or disinterested. The first and fourth periods (fourth being right before lunch) are always the hardest to teach. Kids in the morning are tired, and fourth period is and obstacle between the students and their lunch. If the students are rowdy and troublesome, it could just mean they are hungry instead of jumping to the conclusion that they are bad kids. And if Kevin is having problems in school, it could mean that he’s having problems, instead of jumping to the conclusion that he’s just a bad or unmotivated student.

Is this where I come in?

Maybe there is a part for me to play in this after all. As an ALT, I can get students interested in English in a way their Japanese national teachers never can. I can work to trigger their motivation, but I also bring insight to by job that no other ALT has. I’m learning disabled, and if I can find a way to use that, maybe I can make a difference for all the Kevins in Japan (or at least the ones in my classroom). And at the end of the day, it’s through my eagerness and knowledge that I can perhaps best touch the lives of these students, whether or not they are disabled. I wonder if, literally by thinking about this, I’m now a better teacher.

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About author

Scooter is an ESL teacher and Japanese anthropologist. He hopes to document his thoughts of living in Japan, continued cultural studies, and to provide advice for others looking to hop the pond.

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