Thursday, July 29, 2010

Stranger Danger!

One day in my first year I was sitting in the Teacher’s Room preparing for class. My teacher went over the schedule for the day with me and told me that in the afternoon we would have a Stranger Drill. I did not fully appreciate what this meant until later.

Later my Vice Principal, who spoke a little English, came up to me. He said, “Amanda-sensei. Today, Stranger Drill. Amanda-sensei, stop stranger!” He made battle motions like I should single handedly take on the scary intruder. Then he laughed and said, “No no, Amanda-sensei run.” My JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) however was in the group of those who had to stop the stranger. Most of the men were in that group, while us girls were to run and make sure the kids were safe.

At the end of the day the P.E. teacher, who is quite tall and large put on a sweat suit on top of his clothes. He put on a baseball cap and a mask and sunglasses. I was told that he would play the part of the stranger that the students would have to run from. He them pulled out a giant blue inflatable baseball bat. This was less than intimidating, so the teachers rummaged around in a closet and produced a kendo sword.

A typical "stranger"
The illusion of danger complete, he snuck out into the hallways. We all waited in the Teacher’s Room for something to happen. A little later we heard a loud SMACK and several screams. Kids came flying down the hallway and ran out the door. The male teachers ran down the hall toward the classrooms. I watched the kids run, but my curiosity got the best of me and I ran after the guys to see what was going on. It was my first stranger drill, after all. I was very curious.

By the time I got around the corner, several of my teachers had the P.E. teacher “stranger” pinned up against the wall with these long PVC poles that I had seen scattered throughout the school but never known the purpose of. They are called sasumata and there is one in every classroom, one in the hall, and one in the teacher’s room. There was also a desk out in the hallway that I assume one of the homeroom teachers had pushed out at the stranger to keep him away from the children. After a few serious moments the island’s police officer (who was there to observe) gave the okay and everyone started laughing and let him go. It was really hot, so the gym teacher wasted no time in ridding himself of his stranger disguise.

Elementary teachers practicing how to subdue the stranger
For anyone who doesn’t know, Japan has very strict gun control laws. Pretty much no one has a gun. You can’t just go out and buy one for self protection either. The only civilians who have guns are hunters. I’m sure there is probably a black market for guns among the yakuza in the big cities, but most ordinary people in Japan have probably never even SEEN a gun.

Because of this, the security has different threats to worry about. We don’t have drills in case someone comes to school with a gun because that can pretty much never happen here. However, for whatever reason, there is a different threat to schools. Some people have been known to wander onto school campuses with knives assumedly looking to harm the children. With a sasumata you can keep someone with a knife at arm’s length from you and pin them against the wall or the floor.  If you would like to see some more pictures of how this works, simply do a Google images search for sasumata.

We all went outside to where the students had gathered for the police officer to give his report on how everyone did. Unfortunately, my kids didn’t respond well at all. My third graders (9th graders) never even left the school during the drill. They are up on the third floor and all of the action happened on the second floor (where the other two classrooms are). I think someone was supposed to alert them to evacuate the school, but since no one did and they didn’t “know” there was danger they all stayed in their classroom. Also, a large group of kids ran out the teacher’s entrance, which they are not supposed to do. They are supposed to run down the stairs closer to the classroom and then exit the school building on the first floor. I assume this is because there are no less than 3 exits on the first floor. If the stranger is not alone then someone could be blocking an exit, such as the teacher’s entrance. That way would become a dead end. But if they go down the stairs they have lots of options they can use if necessary and it would take a lot of strangers to block them all.

The kids didn’t really take it seriously, but it didn’t take long to be reminded of why they should have. The day before our drill, at another junior high school in Amakusa someone had been seen after school with a knife near the school grounds. One of the track kids had spotted the person and alerted the teachers. They called all the kids into the gym, canceled club activities for the day and told the kids to go home in large groups and to keep an eye out for anything suspicious while teachers and police searched around the school. They never found the person to my knowledge, although it was suspected that it had to do with a custody battle.

Sasumata in the hallway
It’s pretty scary to think that something like that could happen in our little corner of the world. You could tell that the news really had an effect on the kids. But you’ll be happy to know that the next year the students did much better. Everyone evacuated and it seemed to go off without a hitch. That time our stranger was a man who works at the city hall and is apparently a Judo master. I think he made an excellent stranger and I’m pretty sure the teachers had a hard time restraining him.

While Stranger Drills are a big deal and should be taken seriously, I can’t help but love them. I admit that I get excited when I hear we’re going to have one. It’s just so different from anything we did back in America so I look forward to taking part in it. I never want a stranger to actually try to hurt any of my students, but I really enjoy taking part in the drills.

One other item of note: this is one of only two times I know of where it is acceptable to wear your indoor shoes outside, the other occasion being a fire drill. When we come back into the school after the drills everyone has to wash off the bottoms of their shoes to make them clean again and acceptable to be worn inside.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Pony burger – It is delicious!

Warning: Consumption of adorable animals ahead!

Eric and I have a friend, Holly, who is getting ready to leave Japan. Before she left we wanted to visit her because she is fantastic and always comes down to Amakusa to see us. She lives in a beautiful little area called Kuma Village. Kuma in this case doesn’t mean bear like in Kumamoto. It refers to a rock that has been polished smooth by the river. It bears this name because of the river that flows through the village. Holly told us that the main industry of the area is rafting and it’s easy to see why. The river is really cool looking, even though when we saw it it was swollen and muddy from the rainy season downpours.

Highlights of her village include a rather memorable shrine, a bat cave, and a museum about Thomas Edison for whatever reason. In between seeing the sights we required food. Holly took us a little stand outside of the supermarket that sold Horse Burgers!

We were all really excited to try them. Choices on the menu were for a plain horse burger, a cheese horse burger, and a mix horse burger with egg and cheese. They also sold crepes, but they were of the prepackaged variety and not fresh. We went straight for the main event.

We ordered up our burgers. I asked if I could have mine without lettuce. I only did this because it was a very small stall and I thought that this might actually succeed. In many places in Japan you simply can’t do substitutions or alterations to the food order in any way. You get it as it comes on the menu. And if you do ask for something different you might get strange looks because no one does this in Japan. As part of the politeness to the chef of the restaurant you want to eat the food as he has chosen to prepare it because he, as it is his job, should know how it will taste best. And being a picky eater isn’t exactly tolerated during school lunch as the kids must finish everything they are served (unless they can get someone else to eat it for them, and then only if the teachers will let them, sometimes they don’t and the kids still sneak food around when they aren’t looking or are out of the room), so most people are used to eating things they don’t really like. But when I can get away with special orders I try. Sometimes they will do it and other times they will tell you it is impossible. This time it worked out well though and I ordered a cheese horse burger and a mix horse burger with no lettuce.

With burgers for four people he told us it would be about 20 minutes. We watched for a few moments as he began to prepare the burgers. He made the patties himself and put them on the grill; everything was freshly prepared on site. Then we went inside to get some drinks and things in the grocery store. When we returned, our two bags of horse burgers were ready for pick up. We took them home to consume. Jokes were made about how we were “hungry enough to eat a horse.”

Here’s the logo for the burgers. It was on a sticker on every burger as well as displayed on the stand. You will note that it includes an adorable little pony who proclaims, “It is delicious.” Well, thank you little guy! I feel less guilty about eating your cousin now! After all, how can I resist when even you agree that you are delicious?

And that horse doesn’t lie. These burgers are amazing! They were a little smaller than an average American hamburger, but very thick and juicy. The cheese was melted and gooey and wonderful. Also, the burgers had a special sauce that was incredibly delectable. They had the sauce for sale at the stall, and if I was in the habit of preparing horse myself at home I’m sure I would have picked some up. It’s hard to describe what the taste was like other than that it did have a distinctly different taste from and hamburger and was absolutely scrumptious.

In addition to the stall, the same people run a restaurant called Pony. They are open after 6 pm for dinner. If I was local to this area these would be regular eating places of mine. Even with Holly gone next year I may have to convince Eric to make another trip down there so that we can sample this fantastic cuisine again.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Do I really know my ABCs?

I knew that I had a lot to learn about teaching and kids when I came to Japan. But I foolishly thought that when it came to matters of English, I would be somewhat of an expert. But it’s the little things that get you, and Japan has found a few ways to make me look like I don’t know what I’m doing in English class. Besides just randomly forgetting my own language at times, I’ve had to relearn some pretty basic stuff that has been changed to help my kids learn.

When we first started the alphabet song I found myself in a difficult position. I didn’t know how the song went. This was a bit embarrassing as this is a song I had learned in kindergarten or perhaps younger. But the song had been changed. Everything was the same until we got to the letter L. In the version we all know and love it gets a bit quick with the letters L, M, N, O, and P all sounding like one big mess. It almost sounds like one word “ellemeno” followed by P. Now I’m sure that as a child this was tricky for me to master and that, like most kids, I was skilled in the art of mumbling along during the parts I didn’t really know well. And since it’s rather a mess, they changed it to help my kids learn. Now it’s just 3 letters: L, M, N. These are said slowly on the same beats as L, N, and P in the original. It actually fits the flow of the song better. Of course, this throws the rest of the song off. In the original we have Q, R, S, pause, T, U, V. The Japanese version cuts the pause to fit seven letters O-U. The original ends with W, X, pause, Y and Z. The Japanese version is V, W and X Y Z again cutting out the pause.

And now we get to the fun part. The ending of the version I learned as a child was “Now I know my ABCs; next time won’t you sing with me?” I’ve heard several different versions here. My favorite says “Happy, happy, I’m happy. I am singing ABC.” I like this one because happy is a useful word for the kids to know. The other main version I have heard just repeats the beginning of the alphabet A-G again and the ends with “I can sing my ABCs.” I don’t like that one as much because it sort of makes A-G seem more important than the other letters. And once the kids get to the end, they should be able to stop singing letters and feel accomplished, not have to start all over again. I will admit that once I got it down this version was a TON easier to teach my kids. It just really threw me off when I got here because the alphabet song was not something I had been expecting not to know!

On a related note I read the alphabet no less than 96 times one afternoon while grading alphabet tests. I have never sung that song so much in my life…

Another thing I had to relearn was how to play Rock Paper Scissors. This game is law here, and I had gotten used to playing the Japanese version. But I got the bright idea my first year to teach my little kids how to play in English when I was asked to teach some kids games from America (Heads up, Seven up is a winner every time, as is Duck Duck Goose). But then I had a dilemma. Whenever RPS comes up in America I always had to ask the other person how they play. Do they do “Rock Paper Scissors shoot!” or do they throw on scissors? Do they prefer Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock? You have to be sure its fair and that you’ll be throwing at the same time. I wasn’t sure what version to teach them. Now things are a bit more set because in the fifth grade textbook we have an entire lesson that includes the game in English and it’s on the CD. However, I have never seen RPS played the way we do the English version here in Japan. Not only is the order different from what I normally do (Rock Scissors Paper) but then we count to three for some reason and throw on three.

Now I kinda understand why this was done this way. In Japanese the rhyme for the game is in two parts that kinda fit into three beats each for a total of six beats (sai/sho/ wa gu/ jan/ken/pon). Adding the one, two three at the end gives the English version six beats as well and gives the kids a familiar cadence to associate the game with. Also it reinforces the numbers 1-3 (and numbers are the focus of that lesson). But if the intent was to give the kids a genuine glimpse of American pastimes it slightly misses the mark. If any of my kids ever meet an American child and reach out to them through the wonders of a shared game, they are going to be slightly disappointed because the American kids probably won’t know play that way. However, it might not really be that bad. Since we do have several versions in the US the kid might be able to adapt quickly and the two could have fun together despite all that. Annoyingly, there is now a new song for English janken on TV. It’s on a show called "Eigo de Asobo" or "Let’s Play in English." And their version has them play, “Rock, paper, scissors, go!” I’m not sure if any of my kids watch that show, but if they do I’m worried they might get confused.  But then I suppose we can all just relearn it together.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Daruma dolls

I mentioned Daruma dolls briefly in my last post. I was about to include more details on the little guys when I realized that I could probably just write a whole post about them. These little guys are really common in Japanese culture so you may have seen them before but not really known what they were.

 Daruma dolls are usually red and have the face of a bearded man. However, a great variety of designs does exist. They are apparently modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. Bodhidharma really existed and he is mentioned in many historical records. But no biographical records really exist and the man has become more of a legend. He is usually seen as a very devote but somewhat senile monk. He is apparently well known for his practice of “wall-gazing” or staring at a wall in meditation for long periods of time. One legend claims that he sat facing a wall while meditating for nine years without moving, which caused his legs to fall off due to atrophy. Another legend says that he fell asleep during this nine year meditation. He was so angry at himself that he cut off his eye lids to prevent himself from falling asleep ever again, and his discarded eyelids sprouted the first tea plants. All in all he seems like a rather hardcore monk.

Daruma dolls are typically red because high ranking priests in Zen Buddhism wear red. And since Bodhidharuma was the founder of the sect, he surely must have worn a red robe. They are usually made of papier-mâché and are weighted at the bottom so that they always return to an upright position when tilted over. In Japanese this type of toy is called “okiagari” for get up (oki) and arise (agari). Because of this, Daruma dolls are symbols of perseverance, the ability to have success, overcome adversity, and recover from misfortune. They are often seen with the phrase “Nanakorobi Yaoki” which mean fall down seven times, get up eight times.

Apparently the facial hair on the dolls is also significant. The eyebrows are commonly shaped to resemble a crane and the cheek hair to resemble a tortoise shell. The crane and the tortoise are symbols of long life as the crane is said to live 1,000 years and the tortoise 10,000 years. I can see the crane in the eyebrows of some of the dolls, but I have trouble seeing a tortoise shell in the cheek hair. And many of the dolls don’t seem to carry these symbolic markings.

The last really common feature is that they are normally sold with blank eyes. This can look a little creepy, but it has a really interesting explanation. When you are going to start a big project or set a goal you fill in one of the eyes. Then, every time you see your one eyed Daruma doll you are reminded of your goal and work toward it. Even if you have trouble you remember that the Daruma always gets back up and you keep trying. When you accomplish your goal you fill in the other eye. The promise of getting full eyesight is also supposed to encourage the Daruma to help grant your wish. So they are good luck to have around when you are working on something big. In the video game Okami there were several one eyed Darumas in the game. If you filled in the other eye with your Celestial Brush you got a reward.

Daruma dolls are “effective” for one year. At the end of the year it is customary to take the Daruma doll back to the temple you bought it from. Just after New Year’s Day the temples hold a traditional burning ceremony. Here you can express your gratitude to the dolls for their help and purchase new dolls for the next year.

A random side note I thought was interesting: In the Edo period merchants were considered low class and so they developed their own cultural humor making fun of things that the higher classes held sacred. And so the Daruma was satirically depicted as a prostitute since they both share resilience for laying down and getting right back up. Female Daruma are still seen today, although now they have the same wholesome image as their male counterparts.

In Japan a snowman is known as a yukidaruma. Yuki means snow. Japanese snowmen almost always have two parts as opposed to the western standard of three. Baskin Robins (often simply called 31 here) is having a summer promotion of two scoop yukidaruma ice-cream, a large bottom scoop and a smaller second scoop.

One last thing I should probably have included in the last entry is Daruma Otoshi. This ancient game has a Daruma doll in 6 pieces. The game is played by using a small hammer to try to knock out each piece from bottom to top without knocking the whole things over. The game is still common today and I’ve seen my elementary kids play it.

While most places I looked at agreed that different colors had different meanings, they didn’t seem to agree on what the different colors meant. On one site a blue Daruma was for health and longevity and on another it was for personal achievement and success. White was listed as love and harmony, new birth and best wishes, or purity of mind and a wedding present. Purple was long life and preventing disasters or advancement in career. Green could be to remind you of your beginners mind at all times (?) or be for good health and vitality. Other colors are a bit more standard. Red is always general good luck and gold seems to always be associated with wealth. Several sites agree that yellow is for security and protection. Black seems to be for warding off evil and for a successful business year. Only one site listed orange and it was listed as success in school. Pink almost always seems to be associated with love and relationships and childbirth. Basically my best advice is to check with the temple or place you buy one from and see what they recommend. Internet options also exist such as this one which is in English and has some really good info.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fun and Games

Many of the games my elementary students play could be found on any playground in America. My kids play tag, which is called Oni gokko, literally “demon chase.” The child who is “it” is known here as being the “oni,” or demon. Another common game is Kakurenbo or Hide and Seek. There is one interesting difference with this game. In America when the person who is “it” is done counting they say, “Ready or not, here I come!” Here in Japan the oni calls out “Mou ii kai?” which means “Okay, are you read?” If you are ready you call back, “Mou ii yo!” which means “Okay, ready!” But if you aren’t ready you can call out “Mada da yo!” which means “Not yet!” The oni waits and calls out again later to see if you are ready yet. It just seems more polite here as the oni asks if you are ready and gives you more time where as in America when the counting is finished they are coming if you are “ready or not.”

I also know of a game similar to red light, green light. It’s called Darumasan ga Koronda, which means the Daruma doll fell down. A daruma is a Japanese toy and good luck charm and they are usually made in such a way that they are very difficult if not impossible to knock over (weighted at the bottom). The oni stands away from the group and says the phrase as fast or as slowly as they please (varying speeds is a common tactic of the clever player). Then they turn around to try to catch their friends moving. If they see them move then that person must go and hold hands with the oni. The rules for how to free the caught kids and such vary from place to place. The kids also love to play musical chairs which is called the “isutori” game, literally chair and tail. It took forever for me to realize that this game was NOT called the “History” game; believe me, it really sounds similar!

I did a report on Japanese children’s games in college, so I knew about most of these games before I got here. One thing that thrilled many of my students was that I knew a common hand clapping game. We did these all the time as kids; I remember “Miss Mary Mack” and “Shame” in particular. Basically it’s just a game where you sing a little song and do hand motions together with a partner. And the faster you can do it the more impressive it is. While researching for our project my partner and I learned a game called Arupusu ichiman jyaku and performed it for the class. The song is sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy strangely enough. The song is about dancing in the mountains and makes about as much sense to me as the songs we used to sing. But the kids absolutely love it when I break out my skills and play with them. They are shocked that I even know about it, let alone that I can go just as fast as any of them. It always makes me smile.

But in one of my last classes before summer break we played a game that I had never heard of before. I was playing with my first graders and they decided we should play a game called Hana Ichi Monme. The name means “a flower is one monme,” and a monme was an old Japanese unit of weight for approximately 3.75 grams. Just go with it. The game is really similar to “Red rover.” The kids make two lines holding hands. One group walks forward and sings a verse of the song. Then they walk backwards while the other line walks towards them singing the next verse. The song goes like this:

(1) Katte ureshii hana ichi monme
(2) Makete kuyashii hana ichi monme
(1) Ano ko ga hoshii
(2) Ano ko ja wakaran
(1) Sōdan shiyō
(2)Sō shiyō

We're so happy we won, hana ichi monme
We're so upset we lost, hana ichi monme
We want that kid
We don't understand which kid you mean
Let's talk about it
Yes, let's

So then the kids huddle together and decide who they want from the other team. When they are ready they announce that they have decided. They get back in line and call out to each other “Ayaka-chan ga hoshii” which means “We want Ayaka!” and the other team does the same. The two chosen kids meet in the center and play janken, which is rock paper scissors. The loser joins the winning team’s line. The winning team starts the song on the next round. As I said, it’s similar to red rover with its two lines of kids trying to capture everyone else. But this game relies on rock paper scissors rather than the brute strength of breaking the other team’s line.

When we started the game it was just three little girls and me. I didn’t know the song, and of course I ended up on a team by myself. I had kinda figured out the rhythm of the song, so I just kinda hummed it. The kids seemed to enjoy that. The first grade teacher was there and she sang my part for me. But soon people saw us playing and came to join the game. Soon we had like 12 kids playing and it would have taken a very long time for a line to completely be captured by the other team.

As a final note on games, one of my elementary schools often asks me to teach the kids games that I played as an elementary school student. I usually teach them how to play rock paper scissors in English although we don’t play it nearly as much as my kids here do. I’ve taught the kids red rover and duck duck goose both with pretty good success. I have used Simon says as part of several body parts lessons. I once changed it a little so that instead of saying Simon says I said please. So I would say, “Please stand up. Sit down.” It just made the English in the game a little more useful and introduced a way to be polite. But it’s hard to play Simon says too long with the kids because they catch on really fast and are nearly impossible to get out! But my favorite game to play with the kids is “heads up, seven up.” I change it here and call it “heads up, stand up,” because that is more useful English and most of the time the classes are too small for us to have seven people up front. We normally manage about four. I really enjoy this game because it includes some good English and is still simple enough for them. They will play this game all period if I let them, and I often do. It makes for a nice laid back class that lets everyone have minute long naps. Which some days I really need.

Friday, July 16, 2010

My students took a test and hilarity ensured

So, I don’t normally associate tests with hilarity. But today was quite a different story. My junior high second graders (8th graders) had a test today, which they all found pretty difficult. The test was made up of two worksheets front and back over different parts of the unit they just finished. Each sheet had different sections like vocabulary, translating sentences, a listening section, reading comprehension and filling in the blanks. Pretty standard stuff.

So a bit into the test one of the kids raised his hand. He is a pretty good student, in the top half of the class. He wanted to know what the word “bring” was in Japanese. And of course we wouldn’t tell him, because the entire point of the question was to translate the English sentence into Japanese. He wasn’t the only one trying to pull that little trick. I would read the word out loud for them, but that was it. So anyway, he tried asking the teacher a few times all of which got no answer. And then he said the following gem, completely in English, “I don’t like English (pause) because (pause) I don’t like Mr. Kiyota!”  I made a sad face when he said he didn’t like English, but once the rest was said I couldn’t help but laugh. My teacher responded with a light hearted, “I like you very much.”

I then told the students “Do your best!” And the best student in the class looked up and sighed (again all in English), “I don’t have a ‘my best.’” I just about died. None of them were being serious of course. If they were being serious they would not have used English. It was so hard to keep from giggling the entire class. And I was thrilled that they were able to express themselves in English regardless of how silly they were being.

I don’t know, maybe this will all only be amusing to me. Maybe you had to be there and maybe you have to know the kids. But from my perspective it was really funny. Test taking classes are normally really boring and sometimes the teachers don’t even ask me to go to them. But this one was really memorable.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tiny adorable children and changing time

Hmmmm...This entry was written about 2 weeks before the entry I made yesterday.  As such, ignore all references to the time frame of "today" and keep in mind that I had not taught the first graders yet when this was written.  I really should have posted this one first, but it got lost in my word document of blog posts in progress and never made it here.  So join me in time traveling back to before the last entry was written. If you haven't read my "A day in the life" post then good!  Read this one first.  Sorry for any confusion this might cause!

Today I only had one elementary class with my fifth and sixth graders. It went amazingly well. That class is probably my favorite class ever and they are going to do amazing things in junior high. So once our class finished I was hanging out in the teacher’s room getting ready to go back to junior high. I had seen one of my third graders in the hall on the way to the teacher’s room. She had just come from the swimming pool and looked like a little popsicle shivering in her towel. I asked her, in English, “Are you cold?” and she nodded with a tiny smile because she understood what I said.

Apparently all of the younger grades (1-3) had done swimming class together. I also saw several of my first graders dancing about and as always I said hello to them. I have not had class with these adorable tiny children, but I try to say hello and goodbye to them like all the other students so that they get excited about English and less mystified of me. So that when we do have class they will be over the “oh my gosh it’s a foreigner!” stage and we can get on with class. But one of the teachers called one of the little boys over to me and told me it was his birthday. I was very excited for him and told him happy birthday. I asked him how old he was and freaked the kids out by reinforcing my English with Japanese. I don’t think they knew that I could do that. He is seven by the way.

Then began the fun. This has happened before with other tiny children but it never ceases to be adorable. The kids began to spout off all the English words they knew. Mostly fruits and animals and colors. But it is soooooooooooooooo cute. And they get so excited about it. When I played rock paper scissors with them it kinda blew their minds, but then one of them played it in English with me. This made me extra happy because it means that the kids at the school are teaching each other English! There was one other instance where this proved to be the case. When I ride my bike to school I usually pass several groups of kids. I always call out “Good Morning!” and if I see any on my way to the ferry I tell them “See you!” Now when the first graders first started school they had big eyes full of wonder and hesitation at the foreigner who was speaking some strange language to them. But the older kids in the group were super quick to tell them what to say and to practice with them if they said it wrong. Now they all respond energetically when I greet them.

While all of this English talking was going on, the kids were changing out of their swim suits and back into their school uniforms. This was kind of interesting. The kids all have these towel cape things. They have one long side with elastic and the ends button together. This allows them to be worn around the neck like a long cape or down at the waste as a sort of skirt thing. They are convenient because you don’t have to hold them up. What I didn’t realize was that they are also apparently mini changing rooms. The kids all had them up at their necks and were trying to remove their suits underneath. Most got through that step okay, but the whole getting close back on part proved to be more difficult.

There are three girls and two boys in this first grade class. They were all chilling in the same room while changing. One of the boys flashed the entire classroom several times before putting his underwear on.
And one of the girls was parading around in her under shirt and underwear while putting her uniform shirt on inside out. Now these kids are still really little, so it’s all innocent. My little girls especially tend to lack modesty when it comes to their skirts. They often dance around or sit in ways that allow everyone to see their underwear. And the teachers do their best to point this out so that the kids will be more conscious of it. But once I realized that the kids were changing in the classroom I was struck with the fact that I don’t think you’d ever see boys and girls changing together in an open classroom in America. I wasn’t even in the room, I was in the hall. The doors and one of the big windows into the hall were open. Privacy wasn’t really a concern it seemed. And none of them minded that several teachers were watching them.

Now when they get older, I know the boys and girls change in different rooms. Once my 5th and 6th graders were caught in an awkward situation because I was still in the science room (where we held English class) talking to the teacher and that was where they were supposed to change. So they all huddled behind one of the sinks and got on with changing. Once I realized what was going on, I left the room so that they could have an easier time of it. But they seemed more amused by the situation than embarrassed or anything. In junior high at one school the boys and girls have their own separate changing rooms for when they change into gym clothes. At the other junior high the girls have a changing room but the boys just use the classroom. This works because they often simply have their gym clothes on under their uniforms, especially in winter when its cold and layers are required. But once they hit junior high they seem to lose shyness and will strip down to their boxers to change if I’m in the room or not. Again, that’s not something I picture most America junior high boys being comfortable with.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Day in the Life

So it occurs to me that some people might like a closer look at how my typical day goes at school. So here is a basic outline of my day today, which was pretty good. Apologies ahead of times for the length of this entry. I’m sure I included way too many details that are interesting only to me. If you don't want to read it all, at least skip down to the part about the first and second grade class which was awesome!

I get up and get ready, and ride my bike to the ferry. It’s Tuesday, so I’m on the other island. I get to school about 7:30. Today I had to prepare some materials for my elementary classes. My fifth and sixth grade class is taught from the newly created textbook, but if I teach any of the younger kids it’s up to me to craft a lesson plan. They give me a topic, but the actual lesson is up to me. Today was my first class of the year with the first and second graders. They were apparently really excited. And I was too, because tiny children are awesome.

My class today was pretty simple. The beginning would be my self introduction. I had to try to do my best not to bore the second graders who had heard all of this a year ago. And then, to change things up I decided to do a basic English sentence and game to go with it. Since introductions were the topic of the day our target English would be “My name is _____.” Normally I’d throw the question in there too, but since this was the very first English class half of them had ever had I decided to keep it really simple.

For my self introduction I already had my materials. I’ve done that lesson at least 14 times during my time here. I have money and pictures and my high school yearbook. But I had to prepare game cards for the Name Game. This was the first time in a while that I actually made my own materials. I usually use the fantastic site MES-English because they have a ton of free flashcards and great materials. But the Name Game is a little different and so I had to make my own.

I actually made then Monday night. Whenever I have to make my own materials I try to prepare them the night before so that I can easily print them once I get to school. Sometimes I don’t have a lot of time to prepare before classes, so it helps to have everything ready. These cards were really simple. I just needed cards that had pictures of various characters or people that first or second graders would know. I went ahead and gave them backings that said “What’s your name?” I’ve found that the kids work better when the cards have backs because its harder to see through them. If it’s just a single sheet of paper they try to see through, but with a back there is an extra layer of paper there. You still can see through them, but it’s not as noticeable. The only issue I had with making these was trying to figure out how to flip the text over so that when I folded the cards they would right side up. I apparently can’t flip word art and a few other things I tried didn’t work. I finally ended up entering the text in paint and saving it as a jpeg image, then inserting it into the document. I can flip those just fine. So it all worked out, and the cards looked pretty nice.

At school I only had one class to prepare. I had a junior high class second period and my elementary classes were third and fourth period. My teacher at that school is really nice and if we have a lot of classes before my elementary classes he will let me skip a class if I need the time to prepare. But one period was more than enough.

I printed the cards on the color printer, because colors are fun and keep the kids interested longer. I tried using the paper cutter to make this go faster, but I think the edge is dull because it wasn’t cutting as close as I wanted. So instead I used my trusty scissors to cut out all the cards. Then I folded them all and used a little glue to keep them shut. I can skip this step, but I’ve found they laminate easier if I do it. Next I laminated them and then had to cut them all out of the laminate. Laminating is necessary if I wish the cards to survive more than a single class. And even then some of them come out with a lot of wear and tear. All in all it probably took about 30-45 minutes to make 12 small game cards. It’s a time consuming process, but they usually end up looking really good and I do repeat a lot of lessons, so it’s worth it in the long run to have the materials set.

Making flashcards is easier than game cards as I just have to print and laminate them. With flashcards I also tend to add these little sticker magnet strips to the back so that I can stick them on the blackboard easily. In too many classes we wasted a lot of time trying to find enough magnets for all my cards, and it was never easy to move them around on the board. The little magnet strips are precut and apply just like stickers, so it’s really fast and easy to add them and well worth the time it saves in class. I’ll leave all the things I’ve made behind for my successor, so hopefully they will continue to be useful long after I’m gone.

With preparations complete I went to my junior high class. We only have a week left of school before summer vacation, so class was pretty laid back. We did a listening activity with an English song called Vacation. The first time through they listened and tried to fill in the blanks on the lyrics. Then they looked at the English and tried to fill in the blanks on the Japanese translation. Then we listened again now that they had a better understanding of the meaning. And lastly we listened to a Japanese version of the song. The song had lots of strange English words I had to try to explain like jukebox, jalopy, drive-in movie, and the mash-potato (as in the dance). But the song spells out the word vacation, so hopefully everyone will be able to remember how to spell it. Then we gave out their summer homework, and that was it. Here is the song for your enjoyment.

My fifth and sixth grade class at elementary school was introducing English names for subjects. The teacher had written all of the subjects the kids study on the board and he went through them with the kids asking what he could draw a picture of to represent that subject. This was all so that I would understand the Japanese, and was a really good idea. Once they finished he had the kids ask me, “How do you say _____ in English?” We had twelve subjects to practice: Japanese, social studies, math, science, music, arts and crafts, home economics, P.E., English, calligraphy, and two that were really hard for me to figure out. The first had a picture of a heart and they showed me the textbook for it. It just had a lot of stories in it for the kids to read and at first I thought it could be a reading book. I finally remembered that the kids have classes in moral studies and figured that was what it had to be. The last one had two pictures of kids saying “I think…” The teacher tried to act out the class by showing that there were two choices like yes or no or A or B and that the kids said what they thought. I don’t think we have an equivalent of this class in America. It just sounds like an entire class devoted to sharing your opinions and we do that in almost all classes at some point. Maybe not math… But anyway, the closest word I could think of was debate. I don’t really like that because it doesn’t really seem like making an argument or trying to persuade the other side. It just sounds more like being able to express your opinion. Maybe “discussion class” would have been a better fit. But the teacher recognized the word debate and was able to tell the kids what it meant in Japanese and he accepted it as a close fit.

So we practiced that for a while and then did the listening activity in the book. This is one of the few activities that had horrible directions and was really confusing. I tried to explain it to the kids, but I didn’t really get what they were trying to do at first either and just went with the book’s really lame instructions of “write the number in the square.” After the first one confused everyone we went over the directions again and were finally able to make sense of them. I really love this teacher, because even when we were clarifying rules he was using English. His English isn’t always 100% correct, but it really makes a difference that he makes the effort to use it with the kids. He keeps it really simple, and between the two of us we are always able to help the kids understand.

After we finished that activity it was time for a game. We played karuta, which is a type of Japanese card game. They made pairs and spread out little cards of textbooks between them. I would call out a subject in English and they had to smack the right card. Whoever hit the card first got to take it. The kid with the most cards at the end of the game is the winner. When we have 3 or so cards left the game gets really intense, and to make it even more challenging sometimes I will call out a subject of a card that is no longer in play. This keeps everyone on their toes because if anyone smacks a card you know they weren’t really listening. We played 4 or 5 rounds and to keep it from getting boring we had the winners switch groups after every game. Even though a lot of the same kids kept winning, they were all playing with new people so it was still fun. The kids play karuta a lot and it works for almost any topic. It’s also nice to play a game that the kids already know the rules of. And then class was over.

On to the main event and the whole reason I wrote this entry! As I mentioned, this was the first class all year (meaning since April) with the first and second graders. I think I only had the second graders once or twice last year so they were all really excited to see me. The first bit of adorableness was that one girl had written the first 8 letters of the alphabet on the board to show me. She either learned this from a parent, an older sibling, or at a cram school because we are told not to teach writing to the elementary students (one of the few things that really annoys me since I think the alphabet is pretty important). But it was really really cute and made me really happy.

They all know how to say good morning, mostly because I say it to every kid I see on my bike ride to school and the older kids helped the little ones so they could greet me too. I only pass about half of the kids, but that’s enough for them to all share information with each other. I always start my elementary classes with a full body warm up to get the kids moving and get rid of some excess energy so they can focus on the lesson. Plus it helps waste a little time on days where I don’t think I have enough material to fill class time. Since this was their first English class ever I kept it simple and introduced 5 different actions to the kids: stand up, sit down, jump, spin, and bow. Stand up and sit down are just really useful for the kids to learn right away. The game works by me saying an action, and the kids doing the action while repeating the word. Really simple. My older class can string lots of things together now such as, “Girls, 5 big jumps!” It’s a great listening activity and the kids really seem to enjoy it.

After that I did my self intro. I loaned Eric some of my self intro material a few months ago and now I can’t find them. So I had to improvise a little. I didn’t have my map of the US, so I just drew on the board. I drew America and then added Texas and then San Antonio. The teacher in this class is great! She is new to the school so I have never worked with her before, but she speaks really good English. As I spoke in English she would translate for the kids. Normally I end up doing this myself and it can get tiring having to keep switching between the two. With her helping I was able to just focus on the English. I also forgot my photo album at the junior high, so I drew a picture of my family and a soccer ball and a penguin to show the kids what I liked. Then I showed them some things from my yearbook, which is always a big hit. I showed them some pictures of an American elementary school that my cousin sent me and the kids were fascinated. They were in shock that the school had a female principal. When I showed them the picture of the janitor one of the girls said that he looked more like a principal. As you might guess female principals are very rare here. The janitor concept was also a little hard for them to understand since in Japan the kids clean the school every day (even over summer, they come in during the break to clean the school) and they don’t have a need for a janitor. Finally I showed them some American money. Money is always a winner, you just can’t go wrong with introducing foreign money. They were blown away by the idea that a quarter is 25 cents. In Japan coins are 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen (from about one cent to $5).

Moving on, I taught the kids how to say, “My name is _____.” We repeated a few times with the kids practicing. I don’t worry too much about their pronunciation at this age. I mostly just want them to have fun while learning English. After I felt they were pretty confident I went down the line and had each kid say it. Some were pretty shy, but they all did really well.

Next it was time for the best part of the lesson! The Name Game! I learned this game at one of my Orientations during my first year, but had never had a chance to use it. I went through the cards and confirmed that I did have a basic understanding of Japanese pop culture icons that children will be familiar with. It was important that everyone knew the characters on sight (as I mentioned they can’t read English). They were mostly cartoon characters with two sports stars thrown in for variety. The kids were really excited to see all these fun characters. First the teacher and I demonstrated the game. We each took a card and introduced ourselves with the name on the card. And we shook hands because in America we don’t bow, we shake hands. Easy enough. The kids each took a card and I had exactly enough for the teacher and myself to play along too. On the very first round one of the boys picked out the Mao Asada card. She is a very popular Japanese figure skater. He thought it was hilarious that his name was now Mao Asada. I think he was the most excited to tell people what his name was.

I was pleased that a lot of the kids came up to me to practice. The hand shake part kinda got lost in the shuffle, but that wasn’t the point of the lesson so it was fine. We ran around for a while telling people our new names and once they seemed to have run out of people to talk to I sat them all down, collected the cards and started over again. We did three rounds in total. I think every round was a bit shorter than the last one and the kids started to get a little rowdy. They were running around the room a bit, but even then I still heard “My name is Pikachu!” so I feel they were still practicing. After the last round we all repeated the target sentence again. The kids were upset because they thought we were ending class early. The teacher had to tell them class time was over and time just seems to go faster when you are having a good time. That made me feel really good.

I had lunch with my second (8th) grade class back at junior high. After lunch was cleaning time and then my last class of the day. It was my third (9th) graders and was the same listening activity lesson as we had done with the first (7th) graders earlier in the day. Granted it was much easier for the third graders than it had been for the first graders. I had a free period after that and a little time after school in which I studied Japanese and started this blog entry. Then after the kids had homeroom I worked with the first graders who will be taking part in the English Recitation Contest in the fall until 5 when I had to leave to catch my ferry home.

It was a good day. Long and tiring but still good. This may be the longest blog entry yet, and I just hope that it was somewhat interesting.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Here is some more info on the komainu. I thought they were pretty interesting and deserved further detailing.

While researching for this entry I began to get a little confused. There were two terms for these things, komainu and shishi, floating around and I couldn’t figure out what the difference between the two was. I am still not 100% clear on the answer. The name shishi seems to come from Chinese (shi meaning both stone and lion). It seems that when they are referred to in a mythology sense they are usually called shishi. At first I believed that those in front of Shinto shrines were always referred to as komainu. But it seems that one should be called a shishi and the other a komainu. However, even in Japan, most people use komainu to refer to both of them. It really seems as though the terms are more or less interchangeable these days and that while a difference between the terms surely existed, it is starting to be lost, or at least isn’t agreed upon. Shishi and komainu were once two separate Wikipedia pages, but now they have been very awkwardly combined further supporting my theory. And my final weird note is that if I search Google in Japanese I get lots of picture of these things with the term komainu, but almost none with shishi. In this entry I’m going to operate on the assumption that they mean more or less the same thing and go from there. Now that that’s out of the way…

At Shinto shrines in Japan, two of these lions stand guard against evil. One is portrayed with his mouth open, the other closed. My Japanese English teacher was the one who told me that it isn’t a dog, even though it has dog in its name, although on Wikipedia it calls them dogs and just says they look like lions (so remember, don’t trust Wikipedia!). These stone lions were imported from China, like lots of other stuff that ended up in Japan. Legend portrays the shishi as playful but protective in nature. Although they are said to be very protective of their cubs they are also said to throw them off of cliffs to test their strength. Talk about tough love…

Interestingly though, in China these lions were used mostly for Buddhist temples and the Imperial Palace, while the komainu are a Shinto thing. Even more interesting is that there is no evidence of lions EVER being indigenous to China. However, Asiatic lions were common in India, and as Buddhist priests from India came to China, so did stories of these stone guardian lions that stood in front of and protected temples, monasteries and palaces in India. Now, no one in China had ever seen a real lion before, but they wanted these fearsome stone guardians to protect their temples too. So they modeled their versions after native dogs (dogs are fearsome too after all), such as the Chow Chow (whose name apparently literally translates to “puffy lion dog”).

Since the things were modeled after dogs in the first place and no one in Japan had probably ever seen a lion either (after all, the Japanese word for lion is raion in katakana, ライオン , indicating that it came from western influence much much later than these things came to the country), it makes sense that the Shinto version of these guys are named as dogs, as that is what they most closely resemble. Japanese people might have seen a Chow Chow after all.

These things always occur in pairs. The male is always on the left and the female on the right (from their prospective, so facing them it is the opposite). The Chinese (Buddhist?) versions play with a ball (male) and a cub (female), while the Shinto versions seem to be lacking this distinction (a set on my island features both with a ball, for example). The ball represents the Flower of Life while the cub represents the life cycle. The male lion protects the structure itself while the female protects those inside the dwelling. Then there is the distinction of the male having an open mouth and the female a closed mouth. The significance of this is unclear though. In some cases it is said to represent the sounds of the sacred word “Om” (open mouth= A; closed mouth =M), the supposed first and last sounds of the universe. Other cases claim that the male in inhaling (mouth open) representing life and the female is exhaling (mouth closed) representing death. And there are probably even more ways to interpret these things.

But as with many Japanese things, I’m sure a lot of you have seen these things before and just didn’t realize it. Anyone remember the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers? In the second season, the Black Lion Thunderzord is a shishi.

And remember Pokémon? Growlithe and its evolution Arcanine are based on the shishi, as is the legendary Pokémon Entei. Now it kinda makes sense why most of the Officer Jenny characters had a Growlithe. It is a protector after all.

One also appears in Final Fantasy X as a sidekick to Yojimbo.

And if you’ve seen the movie Kill Bill you may remember that the image of a shishi can be seen on the lower half of the blade of The Bride’s sword.

And remember Ojarumaru? Of course you don’t. But I watch it almost every day. It’s been running since 1998 and apparently has over 1000 episodes! It has characters that are komainu and come to life for various misadventures.

If you like this kind of entry let me know. I recently bought two books all about various Japanese demons that I’d love to have an excuse to try and translate. I have TONs of info on Japanese mythology and folklore and would love to share it if people are interested. But I only know what you tell me in the comments below!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Drawing Day

One afternoon I went out during the final period of the day with my kids to wander around town and find things to take pictures of. Things that they wanted to draw. So we looked for nice spots and found some good places and took some pictures and headed back to school. I figured they would use these pictures to draw the places around town. I was only partially right.

A few weeks later, it was what I have deemed Drawing Day. For the first four periods of the day, the entire student body went out with paper and pencils and large drawing boards to visit the location they wanted to draw. They had the pictures they had taken earlier with them as a reference I guess, but each visited the site and got to draw.

I got to participate as well. I had not taken pictures previously, so I didn’t have a spot picked out. I decided to head to a small temple and find a spot to draw there. We were worried it was going to rain as the day was very overcast and the clouds were pretty dark. But the rain held off and let us have our art time. I was nervous as drawing has never been my strongest talent. But it was all for fun and I was excited to be included.

I took a rather unconventional viewpoint, looking out of the temple, back toward the tori gate and the komainu, こま犬, which despite the inu meaning dog (犬) in its name is actually a type of Chinese lion, which to me looks more like a dragon of sorts. This gave me less details of the lion dragon guard thing to draw (no face!) and I thought the tori had a simple enough design that I could manage. I knew I had to limit myself with what I was drawing because I tend to get way bogged down by details. I tried to keep it simple and get the big stuff done, then I could use the rest of my time to add in important details.

One reason art is hard for me is that I am a perfectionist. And art isn’t about being perfect. But being able to sit there for 4 hours and just patiently try things, fail, erase them, and try again worked really well for me. There was no pressure to even finish at all, as mine wasn’t for school, it was just for fun and for me. I’ve never been able to just free draw, take something out of my mind and put it on paper. I can’t see how the lines work that way. I’ve had mild success with drawing from a picture or something I can see.

Being at the site, and seeing the lines and where they met and how they came together was really helpful. That rope took me forever to figure out. I had the straight little ends done, but I just couldn’t make that center part look like two ropes wrapped around each other and not one giant cylinder with sections. Finally, I did something right and it just popped! I still had time left and there weren’t any other big things I wanted to add (I didn’t want it to get crowded), so I decided to play with shading. I wish I had a picture unshaded because the change was dramatic. It added depth and a touch of realism I guess.

This may be the best picture I have ever drawn. I am so proud of it (I made the photo darker so you could see the pencil lines better). The kids were really impressed too. I think I learned a lot about art and lines and perspective and shadows, even in this short time. I can see why they want the kids to experience something like this. I’m by no means a great artist, but now I have a bit more confidence in myself.

Unfortunately, I know some of the kids didn’t get as much out of it as I did. While we drew, the teachers cycled around between the kids to make sure they were all on task and didn’t need anything. My JTE told me that some of the students had been sleeping. It’s too bad too, because I think it was a really good opportunity for them. And it was a day out of the classroom! But I guess nature was just too soothing for them. Most of the students worked very hard and the pictures were really cool to look at. The students later finished theirs by painting them and displayed them for the school festival.

The pictures I have of the shrine here are from over a year after the event in question (click on any of the pictures if you want to see larger versions).  As you can see, the bushes around the komainu are much taller than they were when I drew my picture, but it should still give you a general comparison.  In retrospect, it would have been SO helpful to have a photgraph of what I was trying to draw for scale while I was drawing.  You can see I left a lot of things out like powerlines and the buildings and the handrail and flag pole.   I suppose I was trying to concentrate on the more traditional elements.  I even attempted to draw all of the kanji on the base of the koaminu!

It seemed strange to me to cancel four class periods so the students could go draw pictures, but now I understand its worth and its appeal. Kudos Japan, kudos.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Tanabata - The Star Festival

So today is a holiday here in Japan that most people probably don’t know about, so I figured I’d give a little run down. July 7th is Tanabata, also called the Star Festival. One of my kids wrote a poem about it in the previous post, and now you’ll finally know what he was talking about!

The story goes like this:

A long time ago the Tentei (or Sky King, but think less like God and more like the entire universe itself) had a beautiful daughter named Orihime (whose name literally means Weaving Princess). Orihime would sit by the banks of the Milky Way (Which in Japanese is 天の川, amanogawa literally “river of heaven”) and weave beautiful cloth. She worked hard every day. But she was very sad because, since she worked so hard, she would never be able to meet a boy and fall in love. Tentei wanted his daughter to be happy, so he arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi (lit. Cow Herder Star), a cow herder. When they met they fell instantly in love and were soon married. This should have been a very happy time, but they were so busy with each other that Orihime no longer wove cloth and Hikoboshi let his cows roam all over the heavens. Tentei was very angry and separated the two lovers, sending Hikoboshi to the other side of the Milky Way and forbidding them to ever see each other again.

Of course, they were both very sad. Orihime begged her father to let them met again, and Tentei agreed that if Orihime worked hard and finished all of her weaving that the two could meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month. Orihime worked very hard and when the day arrived she had finished all of her work and it was as beautiful as ever. When the two went to meet however, they found that there was no bridge and they could not cross the river. Orihime cried and cried. A flock of magpies heard her crying and came to the pair. They made a bridge out of their wings so that Orihime could cross to Hikoboshi. It is said that if it rains on Tanabata that the magpies cannot come and the couple must wait another year to meet (hence, most people wish for good weather on this day).

You can still see the pair in the sky. Orihime is the star Vega and Hikoboshi is the star Altair.

So how do we celebrate the reunion of these two hard working lovers? Most people write wishes on thin paper strips and hang them from bamboo along with many other paper decorations. These wishes were traditionally for things like better handwriting and improved skill at weaving or other crafts, but today you can wish for just about anything. Many students wish to do well in their studies and many parents make wishes for their children’s futures. And some kids wish for more Nintendo DS games. After Tanabata the bamboo and decorations are often set afloat on a river or burned. There are several bigger festivals around the country where decoration contests and parades are held.

The decorated bamboo are VERY popular around this time and you can find them inside and outside of businesses, in schools, and even in front of some homes!  These pics are all from the train station.

Today at lunch we had a special desert in honor of the festival. It was star shaped grape jello with two little stars (made of something else) inside or it. Two stars for the two lovers, how cute!

Happy Tanabata everyone!  I hope your wishes come true!