Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Getting Physical

I’ve been uncomfortable in the teacher’s room before as one of the teachers berates a student for something.  Normally it involves some yelling and a kid nearly in tears.  Today took things to a new level.  I have no idea what was going on, but one of my 8th grade boys came in and was talking to his homeroom teacher (who yelled at him last week.  During that conversation I caught the word “lazy” several times).  I left the room and when I came back the two of them were talking to the head teacher.  Then the P.E. Teacher, who is also linked to the 8th grade class got involved.  I’ve never seen him so angry.

I was sitting at my desk, desperately trying to distract myself from the spectacle before me.  The boy already looked on the verge of tears and I really thought he was going to lose it once the P.E. teacher went off on him.  He yelled loudly at him, which any other student walking by the teacher’s room could have heard, and then he pushed him.  I was convinced I hadn’t seen that at first.  I thought maybe he had just backed up because it was an intense situation.  But then he pushed him again.  And a third time. 

I understand that there are some kids who need the fear of god put into them by someone in order for them to straighten out.  But this boy is not that type.  He’s a shy, quiet boy.  I can’t imagine anything he could have done that excused that kind of behavior. 

I know that my reaction to this is greatly colored by my own culture and that it isn’t my place to judge.  But it made me incredibly uncomfortable and it was really hard for me to just sit there and not do anything about it.  I’ve wanted to go hug kids after they have been berated by teachers, but this was a lot more than that.  He did not hurt the student.  The pushes were forceful and serious, but only enough to make him take a step back.  He bumped into one of the desks and knocked some things over, but that was the worst of it.  Still, the idea of a teacher laying a hand on a student who didn’t seem to have it coming really bothered me.  I’m almost afraid to ask what he was being yelled at for.  I’m not sure if they will even tell me as it could be a private matter. 

I’ve only seen a teacher get physical with a student one other time.  In my first year here I went with the Japanese teacher up to the 9th grade classroom for lunch.  She asked one of the boys to go downstairs and get my lunch.  The boy made a big deal about it and threw out his arms and yelled “Shit!”  The teacher, who was one of the nicest ladies I have ever met, promptly smacked him in the head and told him off for such inappropriate behavior.  The student calmed down and went and got my lunch.  Later, when we were brushing our teeth in the teacher’s room the Japanese teacher told the art teacher about what had happened.  She was really embarrassed by the whole thing, mostly because it had happened in front of me.  She turned to me and smiled apologetically and said, “Amanda-sensei.  Not every day.” 

At the time I thought it was a great thing.  He had totally deserved it and she had not struck him hard.  Just enough to get his attention and let him know that he had crossed a line.  But the student today didn’t seem to have done anything that required such a reaction.  He wasn’t talking back or not paying attention.  He already looked like he was going to cry, implying that he understood the seriousness of whatever was going on.  But I have to trust that the teachers involved know the situation better than I do and try to put it out of my mind.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fire Escape

So I was sitting in the teacher’s room, chilling out between classes, when I noticed that all of the teachers were gathering just outside on the patio for some reason.  I finally wandered over to see what all the fuss was about, and low and behold, I found this:

What’s that you might ask?  Well, you probably shouldn’t if you read the title of this post…  That’s right, it’s a fire escape!  And it just so happened to be the time to test it.  I got over there just in time to watch a couple of teacher’s come down it.  This was pretty awesome, so I ran to my desk and grabbed my camera.  A bunch of my kids were gathered on the second floor taking in the festivities.

Two of my third graders (ninth graders) got to come down it as well.  Basically you sit at the edge of the hole and slide down to safety.  They were really excited to try it out, despite the fact that the thing was pretty filthy. 

I’d seen the fire escape from above a few times, but this was the first time I’d seen it in use.  The hatch is located on the second floor balcony, which goes the entire length of the second floor and is accessible from any classroom there. This is what it looks like from above when not in use.

And here are the posted instructions on how to use it, complete with pictures.

It's pretty cool and we certainly didn't have anything like it at my junior high school!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Teachers don’t take sick days

When I first got to Japan, we were all told that although our contracts granted us sick leave, it might be slightly difficult to use it.  Two months went by before I needed my first sick day.  I called the school, as I knew I was supposed to, as soon as I knew that I wasn’t going to make it in that day.  They said they would inform the BOE for me.  So I spent the day sick in bed, and the next I felt better and went back to school.

Later in the month, I noticed something strange on my attendance sheet.  It’s a calendar like sheet that I stamp for everyday I’m at work.  It’s located at my base school, so I only stamp it on Monday and then on Friday for the rest of the week.  I had left the day I had been sick blank.  Because I didn’t work that day.  The problem was, when the Vice Principal was doing the records at the end of the month, he counted it as one of my vacation days. 

I was unsure as to how this had happened, as I had told them I had been sick.  If you miss three days or more in a row you have to get a doctor’s note.  But one day doesn’t require any documentation.  I asked my Japanese English Teacher about sick days and he wasn’t sure what I was talking about.  Even when I said the Japanese word for sick day (byokunen) he still looked confused.  He thought about it and told me that the principal and vice principal probably didn’t know what that was.  He thought that maybe one teacher had taken it years ago, but only when he had had to stay overnight in the hospital.

So now I not only felt kinda bad for trying to take a type of leave that Japanese people apparently reserve for serious illness, but I didn’t know how to fix it.  I emailed one of the program advisors and he was able to help walk me through how to fix it.  He told me this type of problem was very common.  Japanese teachers do not take sick days.  They use their vacation days if they absolutely have to miss school. 

Japanese teachers are so busy that they often are not able to use all of their vacation days.  ALTs however, have nothing to do over the breaks, and need their vacation days to travel back home to visit family.  When you consider that basically two days of every trip overseas can be chalked up to travel time, it all adds up.  And our employers understand this.  It’s the reason we even have sick days in the contract. 

After I got it sorted out the first time, it hasn’t been a problem since.  It’s just another interesting example of how the cultures differ.

I actually got sent home once from elementary school.  I wasn’t feeling great, but I thought I was well enough to get through two classes.  Apparently I looked like I was about to die.  This seems to be the case whenever I am slightly under the weather.  They took my temperature at the school.  It was a tiny bit high, but not a fever.  Fearing for the health of the children, I was asked to go home and “take a rest.”

Another interesting cultural difference is that every time I feel a little sick, one of my teachers offers to take me to the hospital.  This always strikes me as odd, when I only have a little cold.  Who goes to the hospital for a cold?  Japanese people apparently.  It seems to be the general standard that if you feel sick, you go to the doctor and get medicine.  I hate hospitals and will avoid them at all costs.  I avoid going to hospitals in Japan because I don’t like not understanding what’s going on.

The one time I did go to the hospital, I had been feeling bad for several days.  My doctor who spoke a little English told me, “I don’t think you have Influenza.  I think you have the common flu.”  I’ll let that one sink in for a moment.  I didn’t bother bringing up the fact that, as far as I was aware, InFLUenza was the common flu.  I just nodded, assured in the fact that my doctor didn’t think I was going to die.  He gave me medicine, including my first ever powdered medicine.  That’s right, powder medicine.  I was lucky I had seen my teachers take such medicine or I might have been confused on how to take it.  You might think that it should be mixed with a drink.  But no, my friend.  You simply pour the powder into your mouth and then drink some water to wash it down.

A final note on Japanese hospitals.  The word for hospital is byoin.  The word for hair salon is biyoin.  When I learned that I couldn’t help but imagine some foreign guy who had been shot hailing down a cab and desperately asking to go to the nearest hospital, only to be taken to get his hair done.  Granted, I’m not sure how you would get shot in Japan, and I’m not sure how the cabbie would miss the fact that you were bleeding all over his seat, but you get the idea.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Rethinking Education

I do not have a degree in education.  The following is just my opinions based on some of my experience in the classroom.

Despite learning English from a very young age, most adults in Japan are completely unable to communicate in English.  This could partially be explained by lack of practice, as surely people in rural Japan don’t have occasion to break out their English conversation skills often.  But a far more likely explanation is that they simply did not learn it when they were being taught it in school.  I’ve written before about how some students leave their tests almost entirely blank with no penalty.  And since there is no penalty for failing it seems that a majority of students, who are simply not interested in English, never learn the material at all.

The Japanese government has seen these problems and is trying to change things.  During my time in Japan, English education for elementary students in the fifth and sixth grade became mandatory.  Many elementary schools already had some English lessons, but they were often only once a month and there was no set curriculum.  Now they are every week and there is a textbook to work out of.

I will say now that we’ve seen some great improvement the past few years.  The students are coming into junior high with a bit more confidence about English and are more familiar with how the language sounds.  But there is a huge stumbling block as well.

Elementary English does not introduce writing at all.  Reading is only really hinted at in the sixth grader’s alphabet lessons, but phonics isn’t covered.  Only the letter names and shapes are introduced.  Elementary English focuses on listening and speaking. 

The biggest problem with this is that when the students come into junior high they are immediately bombarded with having to learn to write and spell.  These are not easy tasks (I still struggle with spelling).  And they have to master writing before they can move on to anything else. 

On top of all of this, the speaking and listening skills they honed in elementary school are hardly used at all.  Now the focus is on grammar points and memorizing new words.  The focus is on the test (which has only one small listening section, and no speaking evaluation at all).  So any confidence the students had is slowly drained away as they realize that English class is nothing like what they had before where we played fun communication games and there were no tests or grades at all.  And so the students struggle.  Some students do keep their enthusiasm, and some do take to the new lessons well.  But the classroom moral starts to sink so that by their second year many are back to where we were prior to introducing elementary English lessons. 

If Japan is serious about wanting to improve English education there need to be some changes.  Junior high schools cannot teach the students the way they always have.  The students are coming into junior high with much more English than before, but no changes have been made to accommodate them.  Students must be given a chance to use their spoken communication skills in class more often.  I’d like to believe that the reason speaking and listening are focused on in elementary school is because those are the skills the students are most likely to use in a real world situation (and not because they are easier). 

While reading and writing are important too, the junior high curriculum should really encourage students to communicate verbally.  Communicating doesn’t always mean being 100% correct on grammar.  It means knowing enough about a target language to make your ideas known.  Students should know that it’s okay to make mistakes when trying to communicate.  All they really know is that making mistakes on tests is bad.  So if they don’t know something they do not try.  And when you don’t try, communication is impossible.

But until the test becomes less important than learning to communicate, things will not improve.  Teachers will continue to teach English by having the students memorize the textbook.  Teachers will continue to talk for 90% of English class.  Teachers will continue to teach to the test.  Students will continue to be unable to express their own ideas in English.  It’s a bit of a sad state, and one that I really do hope improves.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

School Lunch Week: The Wrap-up

So we have reached the finale of School Lunch Week.  I hope you’ve enjoyed all the pictures this week.

My biggest problem with school lunch is that everyone is expected to finish what they are served.  And there are a lot of days, mostly of the rice variety, where that is a real struggle for me.  Not being very hungry or being full isn’t really an acceptable excuse.  Neither is not liking something.  I get away with a lot more than my kids do, as I often just don’t take the dishes I don’t like, or can ask for a small portion when the food is being served (although it makes me feel like a bad example).  But the kids not only have to finish their portion, but if there is any food left once everything has been served, someone in the class has to eat it.  I admire the policy of not wasting food, but I’ve seen days where it’s a real struggle for the kids to get through everything. 

At the end of the lunch period the students say, “Gochisosamadeshita.”  This is also hard to translate, but is basically another way to say thank you for the meal, this time after the fact.  After that the kids stack their dishes and clean off their lunch trays.  The students in charge of lunch for the day take all of the empty containers and dishes back down to the school lunch room.  They also take care of any trash from the bread and the milk cartons.  Everyone folds their milk carton down so that they take up a bit less space in the trash. 

After lunch the students brush their teeth, which is another example of school here reinforcing a good life habit that is seen more as a parental responsibility in America. 
I should also mention that each school has a nutritionist who creates the menu for the school (or group of school in some cases).  They make sure that the menu is balanced and gives the kids a good amount of calories that their growing bodies need.

Members of AKB48 on a poster at my schools