February 05, 2015

Interviewing Affective Educators: Eric Kane

I met Eric Kane in 2013 when I attended my first JALT conference in Kobe, Japan. Eric is that kind of guy that you will remember him after you have met him. He is a kind, creative, and energetic teacher who is always singing, thinking, and sketching how his ideas can become either songs, books, or videos. After the conference in 2013, I had the great pleasure of being at Eric's house for a week in the city of Omihachiman and going many times to ELF Learning, the school for young learners he founded many years ago. In our talks he shared that ELF stands for Everybody Loves Fun, which defines well the mood children experience at his lovely school.

It's my great pleasure to interview Eric, who is both a friend and a professional that I admire and respect immensely.

Juan: When I see you interacting with children, I notice that your interactions come very naturally and full of caring and purpose. It even seems that you were already born a teacher. Please share with us how you have become an English teacher.

Eric: When I was about 16 I had a meeting with my guidance counsellor in high school.  This is someone who helps students identify which career they might find rewarding or interesting.  Her first question to me was, "What do you see yourself doing in the future?"  I told her that I wanted to be a motivational speaker!  I'm still not sure where that came from, but I think I might have known even then that I wanted my life's work to help others in some way.  

Juan: I have been to your talks and you surely have inspired other teachers to publish their materials. I had the great pleasure of being with the children and  your great team in the cozy classrooms you have at your school. How did you start ELF? How has it evolved since its early days? 

Eric: Great question and a very amusing answer.  I started the school after teaching for 6 years at a private language school and a private junior/senior high school.  I told my wife that I would be happy to stay in Japan, but I wanted to quit my job and open my own English school.  She agreed and we put all of our savings into a building, got it ready and opened the doors.  

We furnished it with wooden furniture in an old Japanese house.  I played music and had coffee or tea ready as the students came in.  It was a very pleasant place to be.  Physical environment was and is very important to me and I wanted to create a space that quietly whispered, "You're welcome and you're safe."

The funny part is that when I opened I told my wife that this would be strictly an ADULT English school.  
I had been teaching mostly kids for 6 years and must have needed a break.  After a year or so some of the seniors in the neighborhood asked me to teach their grandchildren, so I went down to the used furniture place and picked up a nice cedar table for the kids.  I found myself really enjoying the classes.  We laughed a lot and I found myself building a strong connection with the students...much closer than I had ever become with my adult students.  

I think it was there purity.  They had no reservations if they trusted you.  Build the trust with a laugh and they would follow.  I found myself having a good amount of success with these students despite the fact that, looking back, I really knew little of what I was doing! 

When my daughter was born I immersed myself in books on childhood and language development.  The words were profound and I found myself self-reflecting as I flipped through the pages.  How can I use this information in my classroom?  How do we really learn or acquire language.  More and more it became clear to me that, at least with the youngest learners, it was much more than just language.  It was about learning how to communicate with one another at all costs.  This realization has guided much of my teaching since then.

After a while my daughter's friends started to join the school and I found myself enjoying the classes more and more.  Ever since I've slowly moved away from teaching adults and 2 years ago we closed our doors to all students over the age of 12!  I laugh every time I think about where we started!

Juan: I would have never imagined it if you hadn't told it, Eric! As you know I strongly believe in affective language learning. How do you see affect being lived in the everyday life at ELF?

Eric: One of my favorite teaching quotes is, "If a child can't learn the way we teach, perhaps we should teach the way they learn."

I believe that children learn naturally if we give them the right environment, opportunity and a little patience.  Unfortunately we find that parents are often the most impatient with the learning process.  The kids are just fine!

That's why we've made an effort to discuss how children learn with moms and dads.  If they understand that (in our case) language learning is largely a natural process at this age, they generally are quite happy to back off and not insist on meaningless tests and assessments.  And more often than not, they are surprised at the results.  

Most of our students only come once a week, so we try and spend as much time as possible in an interactive environment.  We use many picture books to discuss characters and illustrations, to develop predictive and memory skills and spend whatever time necessary helping them to understand the meaning of the story.  We also use a great deal of songs in creative ways, often with students creating their own versions of the songs!  And one of my favorite activities is to put down an assortment of flash cards on the floor and build a story with them.  They LOVE that.

Juan: In my travels around the world, I have visited many successful schools and yours is certainly one of these. In your opinion, what is important for a language school to thrive?  

Eric: Big question!  For me, personally, it's about creating a great space, hiring the right teachers, training them well, communicating goals and teaching methods to parents and students and then following through. Pretty much the same as any other business I think. 

Eric published this amazing book! 
Juan:You have launched books in the area of phonics, which have been very well received. What are the new features you have included in the books? 

Eric: With phonics and other materials I think it's less, "What's new" and more, "What's the Combination." We tried to combine a number of goals in a clear, classic layout that kids will love and teachers will find both effective and easy-to-teach. The main spreads are designed to be very clear while the activity sections are designed to provide opportunities to dig a little deeper into the English language. So far it seems that we have hit a sweet spot with students, parents and teachers giving us a very big thumbs up! 

Juan: Could you share with us how you create and produce your lovely videos? 

Eric: I could, but then I'd have to kill you....

Seriously, there's no rhyme or reason to it.  Many of the videos are based around our curriculum, those are the videos that I have to make for the kids to have exposure to English outside of the classroom.  For the song videos, it's often just a lot of fun!  Sometimes I make the music first.  Sometimes the video section.  It really is all over the place.  I just try my best to use great visuals, great audio and make them fun whenever possible!
Juan: How was the partnership with Mari Nakamura and Patricia Daly Oe in Lily and the Moon? 

Eric: Mari and Patricia and I have a fantastic working relationship.  We each bring different skill sets to the table and each of these sets compliments the other.  For me, the decision to work with and publish Lily and the Moon was made a no-brainer because it meant working with two lovely human beings! 

Juan: Which message would you leave to English teachers of young learners around the world? 

Eric: I suppose I would remind other teachers to focus on being an example of a great communicator. I've found that the more I focus on sincerely trying to connect and identify with students, the more successful they become. 

Juan: Thank you so much for this great interview, Eric!!!

Would you like me to interview anybody you know? 
Do you have any suggestions for this section of the blog? 
Write me and let me know your thoughts! 

Send you all a big hug from Brazil!


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  1. Wowww .. what an inspiring post. Thank you Juan for interviewing Eric. I believe the key is being passionate about what you are doing which is very clear in Eric's answers ;)

  2. wow... My dear sister did it first this time! ;)
    I loved the post as I enjoyed every single word you both said!
    I also agree with her that with passion and love you can get all you want. And... we know that some dreams come true that is why Eric's school is so successful!!
    Thanks for this lovely and lively interview, Juan!
    Smiles from Argentina,
    Maria :)


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