WTF is going on with British primary school assessment?

I feel for my UK teacher friends... WTF is going on with British primary school assessment?
I always hated teaching English because languages, by their very nature, simply defy clear-cut, 'logical' rules and yet everywhere we're expected to teach rules. Teaching resources online always make bold, absolute statements about grammar points and I often had a niggling sense of doubt about them.
It turns out that linguists actually dispute the entire category of subordinating conjunction! I always found that hard to explain (or understand), apart from that it seems you can move subordinate clauses to the front of a sentence. But the oft-used definition of 'a subordinate clause is less important than the main clause' doesn't, to me, make sense, for example, of the coordinating conjunction 'so', which is basically the inverse of 'because'. As in, "I ate quickly because I was hungry." versus "I was hungry so I ate quickly." In either case, the reason for mentioning my hunger is in giving an explanation for the statement "I ate quickly".
Also 'but' - "I like comic book movies but I still haven't seen Batman v Superman." In that sentence, isn't the first clause subordinate to the second? Because you could replace 'but' in the middle with 'although' at the start, which is a subordinating conjunction?
I thought my own understanding of grammar, from my education and training leading up to me having to teach it, was just insufficient, but it seems like people who ought to know this stuff are equally disgruntled.
Example question from Y6 grammar test, taken from Michael Rosen's recent blog post:
Tick the sentence where the highlighted word is used as a subordinating conjunction.
Tick one.
He was at school BEFORE you.
She did her homework UNTIL dinnertime.
Do not undo your seatbelt, UNTIL the car has stopped.
WHEN the sun is out, we will go outside.
Just what in the hell? Can anyone answer this? It seems from Michael Rosen's update post that a lot of people who you'd think ought to be able to answer a Year 6 grammar question cannot.

My new favourite Japanese word

I love the Japanese word komorebi. It has no English equivalent; try typing it into Google Translate.

I was looking for an image to represent komorebi when I remembered this video I recorded at a folk music festival in Sheffield a couple of years ago. I was lying on my back listening to the music in the shade on a hot Summer's day, enjoying the komorebi so much I had to record it.

Komorebi means 'sunlight filtered through foliage'. What an absolutely glorious thing to have a word for. The Japanese, as if I didn't already know it, obviously have a keen sense of beauty.

What's even better about the word is how it's written. There are 3 kanji in it (the れ is just the hiragana for 're'): 木漏れ日. I tried to figure out what those kanji meant to see how such a cool concept was translated into a word.

Kanji are the complicated symbols that come from Chinese and have meanings but their pronunciation varies from word to word. There are thousands of them and, like English spellings, some people know more than others.

Firstly, I immediately recognised the final kanji, 日; it represents the sun and is often pronounced 'bi'. So this word probably has something to do with the sun.

The first two kanji are 木, tree, and 漏, leakage, which I had to look up. Weirdly, put together (木漏) Google Translate gives the result 'kimo', or 'liver'! I guess the liver filters things, like the leaves filter sunlight?? Why the kanji for tree/wood appears in the word for liver I have no idea.

Add the れ to 木漏, however, and the translation switches to 'komore', or simply 'tree leakage'. I assume that's either Google failing to think of anything more appropriate than slapping the two meanings together, or the Japanese genuinely have a general word for stuff leaking from trees. Which is kinda weird.

Komorebi in New Zealand (photo by me, from April 2014)

An honorable mention goes to 森林浴 ('shinrinyoku'), which translates directly to 'forest bathing', and according to the page which inspired this post means "to go deep into the woods where everything is silent and peaceful for a relaxation". I love me some shinrinyoku.

My first week living in Japan

It's half past 10pm on Tuesday the 22nd of December, and this time last week I was out cold on my newly-made futon bed, on my own in a cold and unfamiliar apartment, exhausted from my long journey to Japan.

Here's a summary of my first week living in Japan.

Tuesday - Arrival

I wrote a blog post as 'Mr Russell' for my journey to Japan, which you might already have read. It was a long journey from early Monday morning when I left my brother's in Hertford, to arriving in Japan on Tuesday afternoon local time. I had no internet that entire time, and when I landed in Tokyo's Narita Airport (pretty far from Tokyo's city centre) I had time to make a payphone call to OES (Ota English School) telling them I'd landed before I had to get on a coach for a 3-hour trip to Ota.

I arrived at Ota Station on Tuesday evening, with my backpack and two big luggage bags, and because I was half an hour early and had no means to contact anyone, I dragged my bags to a nearby mini-mart type shop and looked for some food. Turns out I was actually 2 minutes from OES's central office, though I obviously had no idea at the time. Eventually one of the native English speaking staff (can't actually remember who it was, thinking back now) arrived to walk me to the office.

After a few introductions and a chance to sit and chill, I was whisked off to Oizumi and my apartment. It was cold and dark by then, and the apartment seemed a bit dingy and dirty, but I was exhausted so after a very friendly Japanese OES member helped me make my new futon bed, I flaked out until Wednesday morning.

Wednesday - Exploring Oizumi and Ota

I woke early Wednesday morning and made myself more familiar with my apartment. There was a lot I wasn't sure about still - the Japanese garbage separation protocols, my washing machine, the hob, what supplies I had and what I needed to find - but it was nicer in daylight and I spent a while unpacking and made myself a cup of tea and had a hobnob, which naturally made everything a bit better.

I'd had my local 'corner shop' pointed out to me as we approached the night before, so I headed over there to scope it out, and picked up a few things I recognised like milk, eggs, bread, and croissants.

Then after Skyping my mum and sister, I planned a journey to Aeon Mall on Ota on the trains. Handily, once you've planned a journey with the Google Maps app on your phone, you can leave the route loaded and it'll track you on GPS even if you don't have internet once you've left your home. I spent a lot of time on the Japanese public transport system in April, so it wasn't that hard to get to the mall. I had a double cheeseburger at Japanese McDonald's (マクドナルド - 'Makudonarudo'), and had a poke around at the cinema (Star Wars would be coming out soon...!).

Knowing 'katakana' (one of the two Japanese scripts, the one used for emphasis or for foreign loan-words) is dead helpful in Japan and lets you figure out most of the stuff you see. Lots of stuff is labelled in approximate-English, using their writing system.

Thursday and Friday - Driving Lesson and Observations

After my day off on Wednesday, I had driving lessons and some lesson observations to do on Thursday and Friday.

I woke up early again on Thursday so after some Weetabix and a cup of tea to remind me I'm English, I headed out for a wander around Oizumi. I'd seen a few things of interest and Google Maps showed some more, so I plotted a route around Oizumi's industrial centre. There were supermarkets, big second-hand shops selling consoles and computer parts, restaurants, dingy parks (Winter's not really the season to show them off I guess), and lots of residential areas. It was pretty cold and I headed back with my arms full of a cheap computer case and second-hand monitor so I could try putting my computer together when I got time.

When I got back Joey was already waiting to take me out driving, so I dumped my stuff and we went out. Driving in Japan is really straightforward. They drive on the left like we do, and the cars are all automatic. The main thing to learn is how to use the crossings they have instead of roundabouts, but it's dead simple. I've been assigned a car by OES which is really handy as you can imagine! It's only 600cc and kinda looks and drives like a golf cart, but I'm not complaining!

So far I'd been eating snacky-type food from the 7-11s and McDonald's, so I went to a ramen cafe (ranem is a favourite food in Japan) and ordered this meal:

It was very tasty and I ate it all. I haven't been back yet but there are loads of ramen cafes around to try. I still haven't figured out what all the things are at the supermarket so I don't have enough supplies to make myself interesting meals at home, but I did make a cheaty stir-fry with real chicken and a ready-made pack of mixed veg and sauce, and a cute microwaveable rice portion (which works really well actually).

Saturday - Star Wars and Izakaya

Now I missed Star Wars in the UK which came out on Thursday, and I missed the first showing in Japan (which was Friday at 6:30pm across the country) because I was working, but the second showing was scheduled for 10am on Saturday, so I shot over to Aeon Mall in the morning hoping there'd be tickets left. I wasn't very optimistic, and I didn't know if I'd be able to figure out which times were English-language screenings (Japan shows both dubbed and subbed for lots of films). First hiccup: I arrived at the mall at twenty to 10 but it was closed. The mall didn't open until 10 and that's when Star Wars was supposed to be shown!

At 10 the doors opened and I hurried in to the cinema. There weren't many people around, a small group of Japanese shoppers waiting at the entrance, and when I got to the cinema it was easy to get to the cashier and ask, in my rudimentary Japanese, about tickets. Luck was on my side - the 10am showing had tickets to spare and was in English. With little fanfare, I was in and sat in my seat!

Even sitting by myself it was great fun seeing another new Star Wars film. My family's kind of nuts over Star Wars. We watched the prequel trilogy together, we've made silly fanfilms, we all went to Tunisia to see the filming locations. Missing out on this one with my family was sad, but seeing it and knowing they had just seen it themselves made me feel a bit more connected to them.

On Saturday night a bunch of OES employees were going out to a local 'izakaya' restaurant/bar as an end-of-year celebration thing. I tagged along and it was good fun. We sat at a table that was sunk into the floor, so you sat on the floor but your legs still had room under the table. We ate a small selection of finger food and drank and chatted.

Sunday - Computer Building

Even though Ota's a reasonably small town, and Oizumi's even smaller, there seem to be a lot of stores for things like computer parts, old and new. I brought my computer to Japan in pieces, and didn't bring a case or a monitor. I figured the motherboard wouldn't survive the journey, but that's the oldest part of my computer anyway so I was theoretically happy to replace that, but I didn't know if I'd be able to figure out how to get one, or how much it would cost.

At first it had seemed like my computer pieces didn't survive; I hooked them all up and the computer kept turning itself off after a minute. It was as if it was overheating but everything seemed to be connected properly so I thought something must have been fried in transit. I went to 'PC Depot' and picked up a few bits and pieces, and set about tinkering. The only thing that had gone wrong was that the fan had come loose from the processor, which I didn't realise would overheat so quickly. Connecting that up properly solved the problem, and with my new monitor I was set up again!

My 'tatami room' is now my fully-fledged computer/study room where I sit and relax at home. I'm feeling pretty settled and happy :)

Monday and Tuesday - Teaching

That just leaves the last two days. I've been observing some more lessons, including kindergarten which is an experience! Teaching in this context is quite a lot different from the teaching I did in the UK. Having 30 kids all day every day and being the Big Boss, versus having all sorts of different clients in short sessions and having less of an authoritarian role, is a big change.

Today I taught a few lessons, covering for one of the other OES teachers who's gone back to the UK for Christmas. I think once I get into the swing of it it's going to be pretty straightforward and a good fun way to spend a year. There should be lots of opportunity for me to explore Japan - its language, culture and food. But I still miss everyone in the UK!

It's now 1am on Wednesday morning and I'm teaching from 3pm to 9pm tomorrow (then I might sneak in another viewing of Star Wars...). I'm working on Christmas morning, but then I shall be Skyping my family and seeing what sort of Christmas dinner I can put together!

Missile Game

I made a game! Well, I've made a few, but this one's pretty neat I thought. I used Scratch, which is a child-friendly platform used in schools around the world to teach programming. This is a simple ballistics game, with two turrets taking turns to shoot each other on destructible terrain.

To start a Scratch program press the green flag.

You can see the code by going here and clicking 'See inside'. You can even change the code and see what difference it makes live, without creating an account!

Cambridge Folk Festival 2015

Just got back from 4 days at Cambridge Folk Festival and it was great fun! I tried to take plenty of photos when I wasn't dancing or fiddling or being silly or entertaining nephews/cousins-once-removeds. It was really fun; I found a new group I really enjoyed - 'Fara' (of Orkney) - and to accompany the slideshow here's the first track and one of my favourites their album, which I bought straight away after seeing them on Thursday afternoon. And what a stunningly beautiful video it has, too.


Full gallery

Japan 2015 - last day, in Osaka

Today was my last day in Japan! Boo! I woke up early in my prison cell, because I had to be out by 9 or else pay for another night, and headed out into a really cold morning in the middle of Osaka! It was early and everywhere was still mostly closed, and this was the first day I was in the same place as a previous day with no particular plans. I made my way to the subway and headed off to Namba station, where I'd be leaving to go to the airport later , and stored my luggage for the day. I found a little cafe serving breakfast and had some french toast and 'royal milk tea', which is apparently not Japanese for simple white British tea. Whatever it was, it was pretty disgusting, but it did contain tea so I wasn't too put out.
Being my last day I had all my yens to spend if I wanted, so some shopping was in order at some point, but everywhere seemed to be closed and I'd also heard that the Umeda Sky Building was actually worth it. I'd been up Sky Tower in Auckland, New Zealand during last year's holiday and hadn't bothered with this one when I was in Osaka on Saturday, but I thought it would make a good activity for today. I made my way to the north part of Osaka, and on the way detoured through 'Yodobashi', a massive multi-storey electronics store I'd read about.
As well as electronics it had a whole floor dedicated to real nerdy stuff like comics and video games and models of characters from anime, but more on that later - there's plenty of that in Osaka to be found!! After a quick tour of Yodobashi, I headed across to the Umeda Sky Building. It was very tall! Definitely worth the price of admission, gave some amazing views of the city from above.
After that I went to look around the shops again. I found Osaka really confusing and hard to navigate the first time, so it was good to start to get a feel for what was going on. I jumped on the subway to go south aways, to the location of several distinct shopping districts. The one I was pretty keen to have a good look around was 'DenDen Town', where geeks probably go when they die. There are absolutely tons of shops dedicated to nerd stuff - video games, comics, trading cards, anime, models - it's unbelievable. I spent a good while wandering around in disbelief at the sheer volume of stuff available. I'd find a shop with literally 5 floors, each the size of a Waterstones, filled to bursting with row after row after row of mangas. And then round the corner there'd be another one, exactly the same! There were shops completely dedicated to trading cards, models of robot figures from the anime Gundam Wing, manga; you name it, there were ten shops selling it. All within this little district of Osaka.
I guess it's probably kind of a boring day to hear about, I meandered around shops packing stacks of Super Nintendos, spent some yens on Magic cards (300 yen for a booster pack! That's like HALF the prices in the UK!), goggled at the variety of trading card games I'd never heard of (Magic is probably the most popular in the UK, but totally superseded in Japan by several others). One of the most apparently popular card games involved lots of pictures of cartoon girls in various states of dress or undress! Eventually it was dinner time. I had been having cheap meals the last few days, so I wanted something a bit more pricey today, and I thought it would be interesting to have some 'posh' sushi, rather than the conveyor belt sushi I had in Nara with my host family. And it was certainly interesting! I ordered a plate of mixed nigiri (slice of fish on rice), and tried some stuff I'd never had before. The worst one was the first one I ate, shellfish or something, it was completely impervious to chewing. The best one, to my surprise, was 'unagi' - eel!

After that it was time to head back to the airport for my late flight. I bid farewell to Osaka and Japan, collected my luggage, and shot away on the train. With just 300 yen left in my wallet! I've had a great time in such a short time; I'm really glad I came. I feel totally ready to come back another time! What else has Japan got to offer?

Japan 2015 - Kyoto

This post was written a day late because, shockingly, the airport where I'm currently sitting is more comfortable and has better wifi than where I was staying last night. After my fun evening out in Himeji, I set off early in the morning to get to Kyoto as soon as I could. It was set to be a long journey, and I was anxious to be there for as long as possible. Kyoto is famous for its beauty and abundance of historical and traditional features. A fellow traveller I met in Himeji had told me that even though he'd spent three days there he wished it could have been longer. I'd seen pictures of its famous rows of torii gates, they've featured in anime and films and I couldn't wait to find them and soak up their serene presence. One of my favourite tracks from the band AIR is called Alone in Kyoto, I urge you to look it up, and was written for the film 'Lost in Translation' as the protagonist wonders around the quiet streets. So, with all that in mind, I was well ready for a great day, so long as I could fit it all in. I was prepared to return the day after if need be, but that would be tight. On my way through Himeji, bright and early, it was lightly misty, the sakura trees were dropping pink petals everywhere, and I saw a couple of interesting things. A heron landed on a tree ahead of me on a path, and I managed to snap it flying away as I approached:
And, being Monday, there were loads of school children, from 6 to 16, walking to their schools. Japanese schools have really smart uniforms and they were all walking on their own, from the train station where they'd alighted to their schools. It's so different to our schools!
After about two and a half hours on the trains, I arrived in Kyoto. In Japan, every train station has coin lockers where you can store luggage all day for 300 yen (£1.80); this has been really useful for me. I packed everything in a big backpack I borrowed from my sister, and it's naturally pretty heavy. I brought a second, lighter, backpack purely because I thought I might check the bigger one on the way home and use the smaller one as hand luggage, allowing me to bring back souvenirs. But as it happens that also let me carry only the bare essentials with me every day on my explorations! So, Kyoto. I was expecting everything I'd described above. A quiet, scenic, contemplative town. Sights like this waiting for those who knew the right places to go:
Well, when I first got out of the train station I was surprised to find myself in a pretty normal-looking modern town. There were wide roads with heavy traffic, tourists everywhere - and not the chinese tourists of Nara Park, but westerners looking very western.
There's an easter egg in that picture, by the way. A holy shrine for a different kind of person, someone more like me :P Keep reading if you can't spot it by yourself! When I followed the directions I'd prepared in advance to find some shrines and temples, I eventually found - sat amongst all the shops and busy roads and itself filled with stalls offering snacks and souvenirs for tourists - a sort of microcosm of the variety of places I'd seen already. Everything was surrounded by tourism, you were never out of eye-sight of modern shops, or signs written in English offering takoyaki (seems that's the quintessential must-try weird Japanese food, easily knocked up and served at a stall), or renovations, and the inescapable crowds. There's a little district - two streets really - which have been kept in a traditional style, but it was nothing I hadn't already seen at Mount Yoshino and was worse for the crowds. The shops were selling good tourist wares of a wide variety, and I did do a little shopping.
Past those streets I reached 'Kiyomizu Temple', which was one of the many attractions. It was like Todaiji but smaller. It was like Yoshino but less remote. It was like Shosha but less atmospheric. So I walked swiftly through the crowds, skipped the line to take your shoes off and gawk at the strange statues on display in a dimly lit room, and just snapped a couple of shots before moving on.
A short subway ride later, I made my way to Fushimi Inari, the famous row of dozens of bright orange torii gates. Now, I'd seen plenty of torii gates at this point, even some in long rows down paths, but I was still looking forward to this iconic site. Remember that picture of it above? There's a reason it's to the side. There's no way you're getting a picture down the length of the path without tourists getting in the way. This is what it's really like to be there:
So, another illusion shattered. It's right in the middle of another tourist trap, I think you had to pay to get to it, and there's simply no way anyone ever wandered past it on an idle stroll, or retreated to it as a quiet place away from the crowds in town or any of the silly pictures I had of it in my head. It was an interesting place, but I wasn't in the right frame of mind to enjoy it like other places I'd been. Moving on, I had a little side-mission to accomplish before heading to the next recommended site. A bit of a lengthy walk, away from the shrines and temples and into the thick of Kyoto town, walking along main roads, where no tourist should be, and I came upon my own personal holy place. I hadn't realised it until I stumbled across the fact, and I would never have guessed it with my naive picture of the place, but Kyoto is actually the town where a certain Japanese company was founded, and whose main headquarters are still located. Apart from the name on the building, there's nothing to show it - no shops or museums or anything for a pilgrim like me to enjoy, but still I was able to stand right outside the building where so many of my favourite video games have been, and continue to be, made.
So with a thrill at the thought that somewhere in that building the next Zelda game is being developed, Mewtwo is being made ready for release on Smash Bros, and who knows what other secret projects are being worked on for me to enjoy later on, I went off to find some lunch. Tonkatsu today! I've had something different every day so far. This was pretty 'basic' fare, my brother Matthew could probably have done better, but it was nice, and the price of a McDonald's. I like how every meal has all these bits to go with it, miso soup, green tea, a small side or two of some weird vegetable!
After lunch it was getting late and I contemplated heading back to Osaka. My final planned stop in Kyoto was going to be a bit of a challenge to get to, trains and then buses, and it would be getting dark soon. But I figured, what the hell, I'm here so I'll go. And I'm really glad I did! I got there 10 minutes before it shut, and in those 10 minutes got the experience I'd been missing all day. A unique, interesting, and properly presented (as in, not surrounded by crap) historical treasure. It had real presence, and even though I only had 15 minutes to go round, it was enough to soak it up and get some good pictures. Behold Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple!
So with Kyoto over on a high, I was happy travelling back to Osaka to find my final accommodation. I got back quite late and took a little while to find and come to terms with(!) where I'd be sleeping that night. I'd seen the pictures of the room online and they looked fine, but the building and the corridor were properly like sleeping in a prison! The doors were like cell doors, metal things that clanged firmly shut like they had to keep in violent murderers! I was happy to have my own room though, and did some internetting. It was in the middle of Osaka city, so I could pop out into the pouring rain and find a place to grab a late dinner a quick trip on the subway away. CHIKIN KA-RE (chicken curry), cheap and simple and filling.
All in all, I think Kyoto is a great place for people wanting to get as much 'Japan' as they can in as short a time as possible; it's tourist-friendly with Japanese food and souvenirs, and offers a variety of iconic sights. But for me, it offered nothing new and was less palatable for its popularity.