For our second interview, we happily bring you a discussion with Patrick Jackson. Patrick Jackson is a textbook author for young English language learners, which include several courses published by Oxford University Press such as Everybody Up and Potato Pals. He is particularly interested in the use of songs, stories, and real-world connections to help motivate learners. As an educator, Patrick Jackson is motivated by the power of real-world experiences and community action to inspire and give meaning to classroom learning. He now resides in his home country of Ireland after 12 years of teaching English to Japanese learners of all ages. He is a passionate beachcomber and litter-picker and is currently working on projects that help children discover their role as environmental stewards. He was interviewed by our very own Torrin Shimono, who has taught English to Japanese learners of all age groups for more than a decade and is an associate professor at Kindai University in the Faculty of Law. He received his doctorate from Temple University. His research interests include reading fluency, reaction times, phonology, self-efficacy, and testing. Now, for your reading pleasure…
Torrin Shimono: I was really impressed by your plenary speech, particularly how relatable and engaging your stories were, especially to my own path to becoming a language instructor. It was very powerful.
Patrick Jackson: I think we all have interesting stories to tell from our paths—both as recipients of education and people involved in dishing it out.
Did you always have an interest in teaching young learners? I remember when I first came to Japan, I was told I would be teaching a lot of kids’ classes. To put it plainly, I was mortified. I hated it at first—them running around with their sticky hands and capless pens—but I really grew to love it because it challenged me as a teacher. I also saw a lot of discernible improvement with the kids. I took a lot of what I learned to the university level and guess what? It still seems to work!
Absolutely. I started teaching kids when I got to Japan. I mean, teaching was the only job I could do. I didn’t speak Japanese, and I wasn’t something like an engineer. Teaching kids was the only job I could get. As I said in my talk, there was so much I should have known when I started that I didn’t know—so lacking in any training or qualifications. I think that really needs addressing. I had a degree in English literature which is somewhat relevant, I guess. But as long as I had a degree in anything, I could have gotten that job. That’s why I think it’s a really important role for JALT to reach out to people who are arriving and say listen—at least know this stuff. I mean, it was a year before I knew about songs in the classroom for young learners. Somebody gave me a cassette and said, “Have you tried singing with them?” I was like, “Okay...” It was that We Sing. It was a series of American songs like Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes. I think that was a year after I started teaching. For the previous year, I was just doing flashcards and storytelling. But I didn’t do any music, and it was because I didn’t know, and I wasn’t part of an organization. Now, I suppose you go on YouTube and other websites on how to teach kids, but that information was not so easily available then.
Exactly. If you could go back in time and talk to yourself when you first came to Japan, what kind of advice would you give your past self?
Well, I would say to myself, “Everybody is calling you teacher. Everybody is calling you sensei. That is a sign telling you not to be an imposter. Step up and go and find what that really does involve. Find out what the best practices are, meet other teachers of young learners, get involved in an organization, and don’t just make it up as you go along.” I just didn’t know that any of these things existed, and it wasn’t malicious in any way. I was just happy people said, “Oh, you are very good at teaching kids.” I took it without really looking into it. So, I’d say to myself, “Don’t believe the hype. You are going to get a lot of positive feedback just by existing as a foreigner in Japan. Don’t believe it. It will just detract from what you should really be focusing on, which is to be a better teacher. Also, there is a lot of fun to be had by connecting, networking, learning, reading about this stuff, and sharing activities like games and songs.” I think this is more of a problem at the lower end, age-wise, because there are an awful lot of teachers in little eikaiwas [English conversation schools] around the country who have literally just arrived and have a similar experience as I did. If you arrive in the country with a university job, you’ll probably be part of a network sooner and have more qualifications. So, I think this is a specific problem for those who work in the private eikaiwa world. I lived in a bubble back then and there were several other teachers who were in a similar situation.
You mentioned the importance of music. I remember I used a woodblock when I was teaching children the rhythms of English, which is a stress-timed language as opposed to Japanese which is a syllable-timed language. What are your ideas regarding how music helps young learners become more proficient in English?
Well, there’s lots of reasons for using songs for young learners. They can get a feel for the intonation, the repetition, the memorability through repetition. And they’re fun! People naturally like music. And you sing together. When you are singing as a group, it doesn’t matter if the weaker people don’t know all the words. If you don’t know a song, you can still sing a song with a group of people because you can just join in with the bits that you know. “Hmm, Hmm, knees and toes, knees and toes.” It doesn’t really matter if you know what all the words mean. You might not know what toes and shoulders are, but with things like TPR (Total Physical Response) (Asher, 1969), you are going to begin to make those connections in a fun way. This is much better than a teacher standing at the front of a room in front of a picture saying, “This is the human body. This is the head. These are the shoulders. Let’s say, Shoulders! Shoulders! Shoulders!” This would put you to sleep or make you want to give up straight away. So, I think songs are the magic ingredient. If you’d excuse me for talking about the Everybody Up course, which is the biggest project I did for Oxford, they really prioritized songs. They have got this fantastic lineup of songwriters, and it has been the most popular part of the course. There were also some friends who were also teaching in Japan called The Super Simple Songs, and they have written songs that are worldwide hits. Julie Gold was a Grammy-winning songwriter, and we’ve got Kathleen Kampa and Charles Velina. So, songs have really been key to the success of the course. In fact, for Oxford University Press, the five top-watched videos are Everybody Up songs, which makes me very pleased.
Are there any other points that differentiate your textbook series from other textbooks out there?
The guiding theme was “Linking your classroom to the wider world.” That was the tagline for the course. We spent a lot of time on the structure of the units which leads to the CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) aspects and projects. In some ways, it’s quite a traditional approach in the first couple of lessons, but gradually, it attaches these more real-world goals to the course. There are other courses that do similar things, so it is not the most unique course. A lot of these courses tend to follow a similar pattern, and I think that pattern was laid down by Let’s Go which has been so popular. One of the first things we did was look at Let’s Go and say, “How can we take this one step further?” It has worked well. So Everybody Up has gone into its second edition now and hopefully will last a long, long time. But things are always moving so fast in the ELT (English Language Teaching) publishing world, especially with digital content, so there is always lots going on, which is only a good thing.
Could you explain a little more about how you come up with a textbook series. How does it work? How do you come up with all the content?
With a big series like Everybody Up, it is very much publisher led. They decided they wanted to create a successor to Let’s Go, so they wanted to include certain elements. They did market research, surveyed 6,000 teachers, got a lot of feedback regarding what this course was going to look like, recruited authors, and had team meetings year after year in New York. For every level, we went to New York for a week. They’re big projects, these coursebook projects. It’s very cool to be part of, but it’s not led by an individual person who says, “Oh, I feel like doing a course.” It’s part of their strategy, and it’s part of a global publishing program, which actually makes it so much more extraordinary than some other books I did. For example, I did Potato Pals, and those were literally our babies. We sent them off, and they published them. But that was rather different. A course is quite a big animal—you’ve got your designers, editors, and there’s also marketing. There are all sorts of parts to it.
Were there any constraints to working with a big publisher?
When you’re setting out to do a global primary course, Everybody Up is popular in Egypt, Brazil, Vietnam, Japan, Korea—it is a type of project that brings all sorts of constraints as well as thinking creatively about what is the common ground here—what are the common values. A big part of Everybody Up is we have a whole-values syllabus in the course. So, you’re thinking, “What are the key values that we would like to be in this course and would be relevant to everybody in the world?” What do we want for every nine-year-old? We want people to be kind. We want people to share. We want people to be fair. These are universal values that we wanted to portray. So, are those constraints? Yes, but I think if you’re creating anything, whatever it is, there are constraints. And within those constraints, those are the things that force you into a creative solution. For example, every third lesson of every unit, there is a six-scene story. It’s six scenes, not seven scenes. You couldn’t just add one. So, you had to get in your vocabulary, your functional language, practice the grammar you’ve learnt, and recycle some stuff. So, within that, you might end up with a story that looks really simple. But the amount of work that has to go into that because of your constraints, because it’s got to be a one-page story, and the design has got to be a certain way. So, it’s all about constraints.
I imagine so. Wow, publishing textbooks really must be tougher than it seems!
It is certainly exhausting.
Did you do any of the artwork or write any of the lyrics of the songs?
No. With the songs, you provide the language that you would like to use in the songs and the songwriters do their thing. Although I have written some songs. With the artwork, you send in some horrible scribbles, like stick men—it’s a rough sketch but shows how you want it to look.
In your plenary talk, you used the metaphor about how the textbooks are the skeletons and the teachers add the meat to bones, if you will. Could you talk about the importance of supplementary materials and teacher’s guides for your textbooks?
It’s crucially important. There are loads of supplementary stuff, and there are other readers they recommend you use. So, there is always a lot of teacher support material. This is particularly helpful for inexperienced teachers, and there are a lot of ideas that can be connected and shared across teachers and even potentially textbooks. With the metaphor you alluded to, I was also talking about how we all have our individual stories, interests, passions, and personalities, and we really can imbue the coursebook with those. Yes, I teach Everybody Up, or my school does Everybody Up, but you’re not saying, “I’m switching off” and then just push the Everybody Up button and run this program all year, and I’m not going to do anything. What you’re saying is we are using this as the scaffolding, or the skeleton, and then all of us are doing it in our own way with our own input. So, when we talk about whatever the topic for the unit is, we are bringing our own experience to that, and that is what makes it interesting for your students. That creates the magic. I know that it’s difficult for publishers because they want to appear that their course is the complete solution to all English learning needs. It is in some ways; the language is there but the passion and personalization—the really juicy stuff that happens in a classroom—is not there, so that’s got to be provided.
I think there is also a common notion that kids’ teachers should be fun and goofy, but I think a lot of different types of personalities can be effective.
Sure. Being the entertainer, it kind of grows old pretty quickly I think, in terms of energy. Also, being that way, you are setting the dynamic up—as students are coming along to be entertained, which is not what you really want. What you really want is your students to become entertaining. You want your students to lead. Of course, you want to be bubbly, sparkly, fun, and funny, but you don’t want that to be the main thing about your lesson. You want the main thing to be facilitating their growth rather than have them go, “Oh! Patrick! Omoshiroi [What a funny guy!]”
Exactly. Going back to the content of your textbook series Everybody Up, is there a promotion of global citizenship?
Yes, we have the characters in the book doing things like beach cleaning and getting involved in their community, and those are the kinds of things we want to promote. Because the course is used all over the world, it creates a community of its own. For example, if you look up online—Everybody Up—Global Singalong—you’ll see kids in different countries singing the same song. This creates a nice community. I’m aware that you want to have people engaged in their own local stuff, and you want to use the course so it will be relevant to them, but you can do both.
When I worked as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) to teach 5th and 6th graders, I found one of the most challenging things was team teaching, which is prescribed by the Board of Education. Coming from the eikaiwas, I thought the majority of people in Japan had favorable attitudes towards English, but I realized I may have been in a bubble, and the reality was there was a fair amount of resistance against English education.
I believe teaching English in Japan is riddled with various historic issues, especially when you see them from an outsider’s point of view. As I mentioned in my plenary, in the junior high school that I worked at, it was like the Berlin Wall between the eikaiwa department and the English department. But I think things are improving in that particular school at least—not to be ageist—but there seems to be a bunch of younger teachers who have overseas experience now. You know, teachers in their 20s and 30s. The Old Guard is moving through. I think there are many more teachers in Japan who have overseas experience and speaking English in front of others isn’t some sort of weird or embarrassing thing. And I think those are the sort of teachers who have energy and would be associated with JALT. It really shows up when we have groups of Japanese junior high school students come to Ireland and the teachers that come with them now are immediately interacting with the other group and speak English comfortably. I think they are good role models for the students, so things are changing.
I am concerned that while English might be fun in elementary school, once they hit junior high, students are hit with the same old boring grammar translation and studying for tests.
Yeah, I’ve seen it in action, and I’ve seen the product of this style of learning. I still am hopeful seeing those young teachers because there is a move in the right direction. For example, companies are adopting English as their lingua franca within the company. So, it’s getting harder to say, “I don’t do English” now. I guess you can say, “Eigo wa muri. Dekinai. [English is impossible. I can’t do it.]” But it’s like saying, “I’m not going to participate in the world.” So, I think that mindset is on the backfoot.
Right. If you could wave a magic wand, what part of English education system would you change anything in particular?
Well, it would be a disastrous thing if I ended up being that person with that power. From what I know of Japan, it’s bound to be a gradual, careful, and very cautious process. Going back to the study abroad project I talked about, it took about two years of conversations in the school I worked at before they even decided that we can do this—we will run this program. And we went through every single aspect of what could go wrong. There was a lot of resistance for doing any sort of study abroad at all because we’d be losing boys in Piccadilly Circus, and the world was going to end. There were all these reasons for not doing it. But eventually, it just happened. But it wasn’t like, “Off we go!” because we had to send teachers on shitami [a preliminary inspection]—so two teachers had to go to England to check the program in detail, and then they came back the following year. The entire process would take, in a less cautious culture, maybe a month instead of three years. But once it has happened, it’s been amazing because every aspect of it is done really, really well. We’re all behind this idea now, so let’s do it!
Do you feel that Japanese young learners lag behind other countries? For example, Korea and China have had mandatory English education in the elementary levels since the late 1990s.
This is just a thought. We have this in Ireland where Irish language is compulsory. So, if you go to primary or secondary school in Ireland, you have to learn Irish, which is the original Celtic language of Ireland. It has kept going because it is a compulsory subject. But if you talk to a lot of Irish teenagers and ask, “How’s your Irish? Do you speak Irish?” I don’t speak Irish, and I hate it. But they have to do it. I think there are a lot of awful ways to put people off from learning languages very quickly and demoralize them. The way it’s taught isn’t interesting. People then develop a dislike for it. I think the best approach then are things like projects; email projects where kids are using a bit of English to actually do stuff. Then, they can see it is a bit of fun, it’s useful, it helps do XYZ, it helps me understand this so I can do that. So, if you can imbue that. I almost don’t want to use the word “study” because that word is such a downer. “I am going to study English” treats English like a separate thing. It really should be, “I’m going to use English. I’m going to do that, for which I need English. Full stop.” I can really see the value of CLIL and Task-based Learning. Putting people off is very easy.
What are your thoughts about testing and assessment for young learners?
Yeah, unfortunately it is so established as the way we organize things. But it is so unhelpful for so many people. I think we need to move toward a more collaborative and cooperative thinking about how we should address problems instead of saying, “Okay, you 40 [students]. You are going to try to learn this lump of stuff all in the same way, you are going to be tested all in the same way, and then you are going to be judged accordingly and then rewarded or not rewarded based on a test. This is not the way people respond well to things, it’s not the way people work, it’s not the way humans are, it’s not natural, and there’s nothing good about it, as far as I can see. It pushes people, it depresses a whole bunch of people, it drives people to mental health issues, and it elevates a certain type of behavior—In essence sit down for hours on end and consume this information. Lots of people aren’t good at that. Lots of people hate sitting down and studying, reading books, but they are brilliant at this and that. So, judging them and saying, “He’s not very bright. He only got 46 in his maths test.” You know, that’s not helpful.
Yeah, it would be nice to move away from this strict environment. As you alluded to in your plenary, the headmaster punished you when you were very young, and that left an indelible imprint on your memory.
But you know, it’s very difficult when you have 40 kids or more, in rows, in uniforms, and there is a system where everyone is passing though; it’s a big one to change. It’s not just Japan or Asia. The whole world is playing this game. But visualizing an alternative is a real challenge. I often see these things posted on the Internet like, “Look at Finland! They’re all on beanbags and they’re doing exactly what they want. Isn’t that great!” Maybe that’s the reality that would create a different society, but how you organize that economically, how that becomes a reality, how would you do that? But it’s worth being aware of when you are teaching to tests or teaching in a particular environment to do what we can, to reach out beyond the walls of the classroom, reach out beyond the test, reach out beyond the established syllabus, and if more humanity seeps in through the cracks, maybe then we can see change. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against people learning, but it shouldn’t be damaging to people.
Yeah. The reality is a lot of students from a young age develop a dislike for learning English.
I think there is often the clown on one side—the entertainer—and on the other side, there is the test. So, you have this duality—neither of which is particularly helpful.
Do you have any other projects you are currently working on?
I’ve developed a project called Picker Pals. It is an environmental program getting young kids out picking up litter. My passion is environmental work, so I’ve connected up my educational writing and storytelling with this environmental project and come up with this thing called Picker Pals, which is about equipping primary schools with the tools they need to clean up their local environment. There’s lots going on and lots of fun to be had.
Asher, J. J. (1969). The total physical response approach to second language learning. The Modern Language Journal, 53(1), pp. 3–17. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4781.1969.tb04552.x
Jackson, P., Kampa, K., Sileci, S. B., & Vilina, C. (2016). Everybody up (2nd edition). Oxford University Press.
Jackson, P. & Kimura, R. (2004). Potato pals. Oxford University Press.
Nakata, R., Frazier, K., Hoskins, B., & Graham, C. (2018). Let’s go (5th edition). Oxford University Press.
Picker Pals. (2021). A unique litter-picking action programme for primary school children and their families. https://www.pickerpalsworld.org/