An Interview with Mari Nakamura

Torrin R. Shimono, Kindai University

Welcome to the July/August edition of TLT Interviews! For this issue, we feature an enlightening conversation between two of TLT’s very own column editors, Mari Nakamura and Torrin Shimono. At her JALT2019 plenary talk, Ms. Nakamura presented how collaborative projects between her students and students from countries outside of Japan can work to foster intercultural understanding which in turn positively affects learner agency and teacher efficacy. For a recorded live stream of Ms. Nakamura’s session, please visit the link below. After her plenary, Dr. Shimono sat down with Ms. Nakamura to further discuss her presentation and work. Mari Nakamura has 25 years’ experience in teaching young learners and teenagers at her own language school, English Square, in Kanazawa, Japan. She has also provided numerous teacher training seminars all around Japan as an author of multiple ELT materials. She earned a master’s degree in TEYL from Aston University, and has been volunteering as a co-editor of the JALT TLT Younger Learners Column since 2015. Dr. Shimono has taught learners of all age groups for more than 10 years in Japan and is currently an assistant professor at Kindai University in the Department of Law. He has earned a Ph.D. from Temple University and his research interests include reading fluency, pronunciation, motivation, self-efficacy, and testing. So, without further ado, to the interview!

JALT2019 plenary live stream:


Torrin Shimono: How did it feel to be a plenary speaker at the JALT2019 conference in front of such a big audience?

Mari Nakamura: I felt deeply honored, and it felt rather surreal!

It must have been a good opportunity for you.

Yeah. My school is home-based and very small. And I have always considered myself to be an “indie teacher”—you know, not mainstream—doing something a little different from others, perhaps. I have been trying to make a difference, in a small way, and JALT gave me this huge stage to share my professional journey.

You mentioned that you have been teaching young learners for over 25 years?

Oh, now I feel old.

No, that’s great! Can you tell me how you got involved in teaching English?

Yeah, my family was based in Kobe, but due to my husband’s work, we moved to Joetsu in Niigata. We started a new life there, and I was doing some translation work using a huge dictionary. One of my neighbors noticed it and asked me to teach English to her children. I said, “OK, I’ll give it a try!” This is how I started teaching young learners.

And you enjoyed it right from the start?

Well, I had one class for children and several classes for adults. I figured teaching children was much more difficult than teaching grown-ups. Honestly, at first, I really didn’t enjoy teaching young ones that much, but as I continued working with them, through trial and error, I have learned what worked well with them and why it worked. I was also intrigued by how young learners responded to my instruction, and how they were brutally honest! Sometimes people ask me, “Who is your mentor?” I often say that the best teacher trainer for me has always been my students because they show their feelings with little inhibition. By observing them carefully, I gradually learned how to teach and guide them. It has been so rewarding.

How did you maintain your motivation to teach young learners for so many years?

Yeah, I sometimes ask myself, “Why have I been doing this for such a long time and never get bored?” I think it is because teaching this age group is a true challenge. There are so many things to learn, and I’m quite inquisitive. If I find something that is challenging, I really want to figure out how to do it better. The challenge itself motivates me. And, you know, each child is so unique. There is always something new to learn from them—in every lesson. Maybe that is the reason why I’ve been doing this for so long.

Can you explain how you started your current school, English Square?

Five years into my teaching in Niigata, my husband was relocated to Toyama Prefecture. So, I started a home-based school there. Then again, four years later, we ended up moving to Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture. After the move, I decided to work on professional development and completed an online TEFL program in two years. In 2001, I opened English Square in the current location. I recall I had about around 30 students in the first year. My school has expanded gradually over time, and currently, I have about 100 students.

And you are the only teacher?

Yes. It’s just me. I do everything—from cleaning, curriculum design, to teaching.

What is the age range of the students you teach?

Right now, from 5-year-olds to 17-year-olds. I also teach part time at Kanazawa University. I just started this spring. You know, I like new challenges!

How is that going by the way?

It’s been an inspiring experience. I teach first-year students public speech and academic writing. A nice surprise is that what I’ve learned from children helps me teach at the tertiary level enormously, especially in terms of motivation and classroom management. For example, I take the time to know each student as a person and use different group formations to keep the students engaged in class. The lessons I have learned from children turned out to be my asset as a teacher.

You said in your plenary that students who find an emotional connection to their learning tend to achieve higher, have increased motivation, and have the ability to make learning more meaningful to themselves.

Yes. Young EFL learners have very little contact with English language outside the classrooms. This makes the role of a teacher in making their learning experience in class emotionally engaging and cognitively stimulating, critically important. Intercultural exchange projects that I shared at my plenary talk can be one of the most effective tools in connecting our students with their global peers and making their language learning come alive.

You said that your students range from 5- to 17-years-old. Do they usually stay at your school the whole time during those years?

Yeah, most of them do. It’s really interesting to see how they grow up over time.

They have to leave after 17?

Yeah, unfortunately, I don’t have the time to add more classes to my already full schedule! But a nice thing is that I sometimes bump into those students who “graduated” from my school on the campus at Kanazawa University.

That must be really nice! In your plenary, you talked about various types of intercultural exchange projects with both English speaking and non-English speaking countries which is great. But could you tell us how you keep track of your students’ linguistic development over the years?

I use formative assessments to monitor my students’ linguistic development. It’s done by keeping a simple record of the students’ performance after each lesson. The record sheet has columns for linguistic and attitudinal goals. Also, once every three months, I do a developmentally appropriate task for a summative assessment in which children exhibit what they have learned. For example, lower-grade students create a simple mini-book using the language items they have learned, and older students create original stories based on what they have read in class or independently. Intercultural exchange projects offer children great opportunities to use the language they have learned for real communication, and I use their work for assessment as well.

Do you prioritize any skills for young learners?

In terms of linguistic skills for younger children, I focus on listening, speaking and basic phonics. Kindergarten to Grade 1 level students acquire these skills through a story-based curriculum which incorporates shared reading and systematic phonics instruction. As they grow older, the focus gradually shifts towards literacy and learning skills. In upper grade elementary classes, for example, they engage in extensive reading, book report writing, and journal writing. The focus in secondary level classes is the development of 21st century skills: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. The students have project-based classes in which they do research on a given topic, create reports or posters, and exchange ideas with classmates.

How do you deal with reluctant learners?

Oh, I have some shy ones. Nobody believes this, but I was also a shy girl—painfully shy. So I can relate to them on a personal level. One thing I am careful about is not to expect all of my students to participate in all the activities in the same way. For example, if a child is not singing aloud like other students are, I accept the way he is because chances are that he is absorbing the language in his own way. He may have some other preferred ways to learn English, for example, by reading a story silently. And who knows? He might be singing aloud in the bathroom! So I try to attend to individual students’ needs as flexibly as possible. The small class-size at my school (6-7 students) allows me to do that.

What is your view about using only English in the classroom?

I see our first language as a resource to be utilized to see what is going on in our students’ minds, so I do not prohibit children from using Japanese as long as they are on track. For example, when we are engaging in interactive reading using a picture book, some children join in the experience using Japanese. I regard it to be a natural way for them to respond to a story. In such an instance, instead of telling them not to use Japanese, I accept their utterance and respond to it in English. If a child says, “Uh, spaghetti daisuki,” I say, “Oh, you like spaghetti? Me too!” Or I say, “You like spaghetti? Please say, ‘I—like—spaghetti.’” With this approach, I can draw out simple language from them.

But having said this, we stick to English most of the time in young children’s classes. Once my students become Grade 3, I make them check the answers of the workbooks together or work on “noticing” activities in pairs. In these tasks, I encourage them to discuss in Japanese. One of the reasons why I do this is I believe what they cannot do in their mother tongue, they cannot do in a foreign language. They need to learn how to discuss, negotiate, and help each other in Japanese in order for them to be able to do that in English. When they become Grade 7 or 8, they naturally switch to English. It’s amazing how well they apply the skills they learned in their mother tongue when the right time for them has come.

As you know, Japanese students have many tests to take…

Way too much testing!

Do you do any test preparation in your school? If a student says, “I want to study for this test,” do you help him or her with that test?

I never help them with school tests, nor do they ask me to. I think it is because they know what to expect from my classes. It is important for school owners to make our teaching philosophy clear before the parents decide to send their children to our schools. From the outset, I make it very clear that I don’t teach to the tests. I don’t use Eiken achievement to advertise my school, either. None of the students or parents consider my school to be a cram school.

So what is your philosophy that you tell prospective students then?

I tell the prospects that I value children’s curiosity and willingness to communicate. I also explain the curriculum at my school, with the emphasis on the importance of developmentally appropriate tasks. Actually, they come to my school knowing what sort of curriculum my school has because I communicate these key points on social media and my blog quite regularly. So the sign up rate has been 100% in the last several years.

Do you ever discuss ideas of global citizenship as you discussed in your plenary?

I do. Unfortunately, most of the parents are not very familiar with the concept. In recent years, it seems they are more driven by the fear of being left out in the “global economy” that they often hear on media. As I see it, even though we discuss global citizenship and intercultural awareness in the teacher’s community, the parents’ focus is more on competition, which is a pity. But once the parents see how their children respond to the intercultural exchange projects, they see its value. So these projects play an important role in inspiring and enlightening the parents, not only the students.

You mentioned in your presentation that creativity in the learning process is vital. Why do you think it is so important for Japanese learners to learn English with a creative aspect in the learning process?

Research suggests that critical thinking and creativity have not been actively promoted in the Japanese school system, and this matches with what I hear from my students. Being creative thinkers is critical for our students’ future. The Japanese government is starting to accept more immigrant workers, and hopefully, they will also start accepting more refugees and immigrant workers’ families as well. When that happens, our students need to collaborate with these new community members to find creative solutions for the issues that arise. And of course, creativity is required in any marketplace given the rapid advancement of AI technology. So when I say, “creativity,” it’s not about art, it’s more about thinking critically and collaborating with peers to come up with the solutions for some issues they are going to face in the future.

I wish your projects that you presented about could be implemented into the public schools. You mentioned that some of them are being implemented into the Kanazawa elementary schools, is that right?

Yes. English has been taught in Kanazawa since 2006 as a special deregulated area for English education. And the intercultural exchange projects have been conducted through collaboration between Professor Shimizu Kazuhisa at Kanazawa Seiryo University and several public elementary school teachers for more than a decade. Professor Shimizu has been offering continuing professional development opportunities such as meetings and training sessions for classroom teachers, which I believe to be a key to success. He has been investing a lot of energy in those projects with this strong belief: “If children are exposed to different cultures and interact with foreign students, they will never think of starting a war.” I really hope that many professionals will be inspired by what he has been doing.

From my own experience working in elementary schools in Japan, I found that the students mostly were open to learning English and had a positive attitude. However, sometimes I felt the teachers were less than enthusiastic. How can we help improve this situation?

Well, first of all, we need to acknowledge that school teachers are overworked. Many of them are in survival mode, and they tend to show resistance to something new, in this case English education. Perhaps we can all relate to the feeling. It’s not their fault. It’s more the fault of our government’s education policy. If the government wants children to learn English, they need to invest in it—most importantly in professional development. What I want to tell the school teachers, given this circumstance, is to start small. As I shared a story of my former student at my plenary, just one exchange of letters can be a life changing experience for some students. Once the teachers actually see what a big difference they can make with a small project, they will be inspired to be creative for their students and keep on looking into new possibilities. Perhaps a class can make just one poster with each student’s simple message. It’s very simple and doesn’t cost very much either. With the use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology), it can be made even easier. I really want to emphasize starting small.

You mentioned various projects in your plenary. If you can only choose one, which one was the most successful in your opinion?

The One Day in the Life Project with children in Uruguay. It was an online intercultural exchange project between 26 Grade 2 students at a public school in Uruguay and six Grade 3 students at my school. The principal and I “met” on the website iEARN (International Education and Resource Network). We started the project in July 2019 and continued it till January 2020. That was my first experience doing an online project with young children. I needed to work up the courage to do that. Honestly, I didn’t know anything about this small country in South America, and I was not sure if my students would be interested in the project! Once the project started though, the students drove the project with their own interest and curiosity and the desire for connection—they amazed me with their enthusiasm and energy. In this project, the students exchanged their photos, videos, PowerPoint presentations, and text messages on an online platform with the aim of learning the daily lives in each country. At one moment, some officers at the Embassy of Japan in Uruguay visited the elementary school to observe our project.

In October, my students created a handmade book titled, Autumn Food in Japan, and we airmailed it to Uruguay by post. It took about three weeks to get there! The students in Uruguay sent us a box full of lovely handmade materials at the end of the project as well. The joyous moments of reading the handmade books and opening the box were shared on the online platform, and both sides of the students were ecstatic about these experiences. So, I think it’s ideal to have tangible student products such as letters, drawings, and crafts as well as doing exchange online. Perhaps the hybrid approach is the best.

Amazing. What kinds of professional careers are your former students now involved in?

One of my students who majored in Chinese at university now works in a famous hotel in Tokyo. She can use Chinese, English, and Japanese and that was one of the main reasons why she was hired. And she really enjoys the work. One former student is studying medicine at the university where I work. I sometimes see him on campus, and he gives me updates on how his English study is going. In a recent e-mail he wrote that he was going to join a study abroad project next academic year. Many of my students choose to major in English or intercultural communication at university. That’s awesome.

What do you hope to see in the future with regards to English education in Japan? If you could change one thing, what would it be?

I would allocate a bigger budget for English education at public schools to provide homeroom teachers and English teachers with continuing teacher development opportunities. If they receive training, for example, on a student-centered approach and lesson planning, they will feel more confident and more willing to explore new ways to guide their students. And it will be great if these teachers are given more discretion on curriculum design, which I believe promotes their teacher-efficacy and agency.

I one hundred percent agree. I hope all of what you have said happens!

As I have said, I consider myself to be an outlier—an indie teacher. Some English instructors at elementary schools have told me that they wanted me to be more vocal about the issues because the teachers in the system tend to be hesitant to share their ideas and feelings at work. This is perhaps related to our culture that values conformity. And someone like me who is outside the system, they say, may be in a better position to share new methodologies and approaches.

I really hope you propose your ideas and projects to the Ministry of Education.

I sometimes do teacher training sessions for the Board of Education and do special workshops for future teachers at universities, so I will continue to do my share to contribute to the teaching community in a little bit different way than other trainers—or what has been done in the past. We have to start small!