Thomas Forbes is from Scotland and has taught English in Japan for over 20 years, at both schools and universities. This year, he is teaching three sections of English Writing 2 at Shizuoka University as a part-time instructor.
Steve Urick: Let me ask about students first. We have a lot of students trying to register for writing classes. What kind of writing do the students seem to be interested in?
Tom Forbes: Well, one of more popular activities I do is writing a story, so they are using their imagination a wee bit. I get them in groups to discuss and I give them–there’s a whole bunch of fairy story cards with a picture of a witch, or a broom or a forest. There are 20 or 30 of them, and in groups they choose six of those, then talk and discuss and put them in order to make some kind of sense of them. And then they talk and make a story out of it.
Steve: That’s interesting. What would you see as the students’ strengths and weaknesses with regard to writing?
Tom: Their handwriting is easy to read. Their sentence structure sometimes doesn’t need much of a change, but sometimes sentences are so full or errors that the whole sentence needs rewriting. The levels are quite different between students. Some are quite good, and some need a lot of work.
Steve: What about your approach to teaching writing or your approach to teaching the writing classes here? For example, do you focus on one kind of writing or do you do a variety?
Tom: I don’t do any academic writing; it is just a general writing course. I do a variety of stuff, so it might be writing about their hometown or a best friend, or it might be a pros and cons essay. It can be a little business as well–one of the topics is a business letter and the differences between formal and informal English. And e-mails, too. And a bit of fiction, like the story I mentioned. If I do a writing class next year, I was thinking I want to include something like poetry, writing a bit of that. Or song, (using) lyrics of a song or writing different lyrics.
Steve: Do you deal with grammar points or vocabulary words individually, or do you deal with them more when things come up?
Tom: When they come up more. There will be different topics but there will be a focus on writing so there might be adjectives and adverbs in a text or it might be linking words, or something else. So each text will focus on something, and if it’s the pros and cons, things like “first”, “second”, and “finally”…
Steve: What kind of student is successful in your course, and what kind of student struggles?
Tom: Attitude is also important. The writing mark they’ll get from me is partly (from the) exam but it’s based on a portfolio. They have an A4 notebook, as there is no textbook, and they have to do all of their writing in that notebook and paste each handout I have given them…
Steve: So that is part of the process in class?
Tom: Yes, I teach writing as a process, with brainstorming, note taking, talking, getting ideas from each other, and then writing a first draft. They always have an example (of) writing to base their writing on so there’s an element of reading, as well, in the class. They have an example and write a first draft. I give them a marking system…
Steve: You are referring to marking their first draft. So peer feedback?
Tom: And a little bit of me. And they think about it and change anything they have to and then they write their final draft and that’s the one’s that’s marked.
Steve: Tom, thanks a lot for your time.
Tom: My pleasure.