Personal growth homework: How out-of-class tasks can help students make friends, get jobs, and fall in love

Kip Cates, Tottori University

When I first arrived in Japan, I faced EFL students who were shy, afraid of strangers, and hesitant about using their language skills. I kept thinking, "Is it possible to give homework assignments that build confidence, improve communication skills, and engage students with the world beyond school? Is there a way to create tasks that can help students grow as individuals, make friends, even fall in love?" This led me into humanistic education and resulted in my first contact assignment: "Talk to a Stranger."
Being able to talk to strangers is a key social skill in our modern world. It’s also an enjoyable way to meet people, get information, and make friends. My role model was my father. As a shy kid growing up in Vancouver, I was continually amazed at how easily he could speak to anyone–complete strangers–in restaurants, on airplanes, at baseball games, and at movie theaters. Later, as a French and German major backpacking through Europe, I realized that being able to talk to strangers in a foreign language was vital for survival on the road as well as for meeting local people and learning about their cultures. When I became a language teacher, I was determined to help my students acquire this valuable skill.
I schedule my "Talk to a Stranger" lesson just before the Golden Week holiday. In class, I introduce basic ways to start a conversation: talking about the weather (It’s hot today, isn’t it?), asking questions (Excuse me. What time is it?), initiating contact in restaurants and hotels (Excuse me. Is this seat taken?), then asking follow-up questions (So, where are you from?). After studying dialogs and practicing in pairs, I announce the holiday task:
Your homework for Golden Week is to talk to a stranger and write an English report about it. Use the tactics we practiced in class. The stranger can be either Japanese or foreign. Your homework should include (a) background information (who you talked to, when, where, why), (b) your conversation (in dialog form), and (c) your comments (how you felt, what you learned). This action homework is a great chance for you. Try to find an interesting stranger. Good luck!
A shiver of excitement goes through the class. Eyes widen. Students gasp. Action homework? Talk to a stranger? Me?
After the holidays, there’s a sense of excitement as students share stories of who they talked to and what happened. Some use this task to talk to foreign students on campus, leading to encounters with youth from Europe, Asia, and Africa. Others talk to foreign tourists. Most comment on how the task bolstered their confidence.
Many students find this task impacts their lives in interesting ways. Some see it as a teacher-sanctioned chance to chat up the opposite sex and report on new romances. Others find it can influence their future careers. One student struck up a conversation on a train with a Japanese businessman. After their talk, the businessman gave him his card and said, "Get in touch once you graduate. My company needs people like you!" Typical comments include:

  • This was my first time to talk to a stranger, so I was very shy. I always get stage fright. But by this, I got great confidence.
  • Before, I had little interest in foreign students. Now, I want to talk to many foreign students.
  • From this homework, I learned that to have a lot of friends it’s important to act positively and not hesitate talking to people.
  • I spoke to a Chinese student. How well she speaks Japanese! It must be hard to live in a foreign country. I respect her.
  • Thank you, Mr. Cates. If it had not been for this English homework, I wouldn’t have wanted to talk to a foreigner and wouldn’t have made such a friend.
  • I walked on Ekimae-dori. I saw a beautiful lady. Suddenly, I remembered my homework. Thank you, Mr. Cates, for a wonderful encounter.

I’ve assigned this task to students for the past 25 years. With 240 students per year, this makes 6,000 students who’ve experienced the excitement of “talking to a stranger.” This personal growth task helps overcome shyness, broaden student horizons, and promote empathy. It also helps to create a world where strangers are seen as potential friends, where conversations can change lives, and where each encounter is a chance to learn and grow. If you haven’t yet tried this, please consider it. By the way, is this seat taken?

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