Posts Tagged ‘school’

Year +

Everything lives on and builds upon itself, stalagmite-like, in the belly of the internets. 

I was creeped out amazed to Google myself this morning, and to see Sailforth pop up at the top of the screen.  If ever I believed I was a static creature, the first page of Google Results is enough to remind me that nothing stays the same, that all definitions of ‘self’ are relative in time and place and space.  Hah.

As if these reminders all hit at once, just yesterday someone asked me:  “Oh, have you ever been to Asia?” And how to describe the weight and effect of not only spending a year of my life in some rural corner of the globe, but one in which I probably spent a little too much time alone with my thoughts, working towards that pesky little euphemism “self-aware.”  Couple this with all that’s happened in the last year – new (old) country, new focus (school), new relationships, new goals – and how to even discern which building blocks really compose this version of ks8.10?

This current/next chapter can’t fit quite so neatly in a tagline. Or a finite space of time.  Yet, if there’s one thing that gives me solace as I wade through all this ambiguity of full-time grad school (a holding cell of a life stage), is that no one I’ve spoken with has seemed to have a firm plan, but rather way opens, as it only can.


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Chu(gakko) = Junior High

6:43am: Alarm goes off.  Check email on phone, hit snooze.

6:51am: Snooze goes off, drag myself out of bed, wash up, make breakfast and tea, pack up school bag.

7:40am: Leave my house, travel tea mug in hand.  (So not Japanesey.  Everyone has since gotten used to it.  Though it took them months to ask what was in it.  Black tea? With soymilk?  Incredulosity.)

7:42am: Roll into school as the last of the students do, greet kids and teachers with a big smile and a friendly Ohayo-gozaimasu! Change from outdoor to indoor shoes.  Continue to teachers room where I stamp my hanko on the books.  Boot up computer and start making the rounds of email, facebook, and then the daily blogs and NYTimes.

8:00-8:10am: Teacher’s Meeting.  Refrain from typing while others are speaking, and keep my ears perked for anything that might be possibly related to me.  Don’t want to get caught oblivious.  Mostly, scroll quietly and continue reading Jezebel, glancing up occasionally.

8:30am – 12:20pm:  If classes: Discuss morning classes with JTE.  Usually have between 2 and 3 classes.  For especially hard or slow weeks, (and if I get my way), we eschew the daily boring Warm Up game “Criss Cross” with activities with a little more pizazz.  Feel triumphant if kids actually seem to be having a good time.  Pace the room while robot repeating, or use their worksheet time to cruise around, and start small conversations.

If no classes: Wonder what the hell I’m going to do at my desk for four hours.  Expand my internet perusal to some other favorites: McSweeney’s, ApartmentTherapy, HuffPo, NYMagazine, 101 Cookbooks, Salon.  Participate in the modern-day version of clipping articles and sending them by e-mailing links to all my favorite people.  (Likely irritating at times. Sorry, friends!)  When this grows old, update the ol’ blog.  Respond at ridiculous length to emails which weren’t that long to begin with.  After thoroughly exhausting my English, turn to my Japanese text books and study.

12:20pm:  While reheating leftovers in the kitchen, get pulled into a conversation with the school nurse about my lunch.  Always along the lines of What is that?  No, I’ve never heard of pita bread.

12:45pm:  Hear kids getting rowdy out in the halls.  Wash my dishes, and saunter out to the main hall and watch as they play ping-pong.  Thoroughly embarrass myself with my poor ping-pong skills.  If the weather is nice, cruise outside and sit with the 3rd grade girls while they watch their crushes play baseball.  Recent question alone with the young ladies: Do you like pitchers or catchers better?

1:20pm: Back at the desk.  No more excuses.  Start thinking about lesson planning for the Sho (Elementary school) the next day.  Devise a method of attack.  Armed with Kid’s Songs and enthusiasm, I am impenetrable.  Most days.

2:00pm:  Force myself to study.  Intersperse studying with replying to emails.

3:20pm:  Cleaning time!  Go out to the Main Hall and putter around while kids sweep, mop and dust.  During the Cleaning Time end meeting speak English to keep them on their toes.

3:40pm:  Cruise around the school during grade-separated Chorus time and listen to them sing.  Thoroughly enjoy this part of my day.

4:15pm:  Pack up and excuse myself with a polite Osaki-ni Shitsure-shimasu.  Feel slightly guilty to leave so much earlier than the rest of the teachers.  Get over it on the walk home.

4:30 – 9:30pm:  Possible activities could include: making a snack; going on a run followed by stretching overlooking the water; my weekly yoga class; my weekly ikebana class; a trip to the post office, bank, or grocery store; making dinner and lunch for the next day; watching whatever HBO series du jour by streaming illegally on the internet; tidying, studying.

9:30pm: Wash up.  Have turned into a night shower-er since coming to Japan, mostly because it was one of the only ways to get warm during winter.

10:00pm:  Climb in bed.  Skype with loved-ones in the States.  Read a bit.  Unless completely addicted to the Stieg Larson books (like now), hopefully asleep by 11 o’clock.

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In October, I talked about Harvest Season here: the many garden plots and the plethora of potatoes, soybeans, cauliflower, tomatoes, and daikon that grace the fields and plates of our little town.  I also mentioned getting to harvest rice with one of my elementary schools, which we then used for the big Omochi Party in November.  Well, seasons have changed, winter has come and gone, and now planting season has begun in earnest.  My happiness level and appreciation for the beauty around here has skyrocketed with each blue-sky day and the rising temperatures.  The lack of Daylight Savings Time this far north makes me feel a little like I’m living in the Arctic Circle.  At 4:45am it’s bright as day outside my window and the sun doesn’t set until well past 7.

Baby rice starters

Ofcourse they got dirty! They're kids! **PS. This is for all you NYers out there...mad love from Kazama

Yesterday was no exception.  In the afternoon, I joined the same elementary school to plant the rice that they will then harvest again next fall.  Although I arrived with galoshes, it became pretty clear that they were impractical for the procedure.  So, like my kids, I rolled up my pant legs and waded right in, baby rice starters in hand to plant in perfect grid-like rows already established before we arrived.  The mud was warm, thick and squishy.  And it made me really, superbly, blissed to be out in the sun, calf-deep in earthy sludge, listening to the shouts and giggles coming from my students and fellow teachers.  Sometimes there’s not much more to say than: it was fun.

See the grid rows here? They are made with an archaic looking cylindrical metal tool (about 5ft wide) with spokes, and rolled across the mud (which has been flooded in preparation the last week or so).

Modeling the finished product

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Funori Tori

“Please come to school by 7:30 tomorrow.  And bring rain boots.  No, you don’t have rain boots? [Pause.] What did you do all winter? [Pause.] No, rain boots. They will get wet.  What size are your feet? Okay, we will arrange something. [Pause.]  Okay. See you tomorrow.  Goodbye.”

The phone rings again: “Oh yes, and bring gloves. Yes. Bring gloves, and dress like it’s winter.”

Everyone preparing to divide and conquer

Thus commenced my foray into the foraging of funori, a type of carageenan seaweed that is described as a “jelly seaweed” when googled.  It grows on rocks off the shore of northern Japan, and therefore is a specialty to this region.  As you can see from the photos, it varies in color from dark purplish brown to bright orange, and can be short and skinny or long and balloon-fat.  It’s particularly tasty added to a miso soup.

Lone little obaachan in the shallows

I arrived at school extra early on Thursday to get to the pickin’ site with the other teachers, and with enough time to set up a big fire barrel for the purposes of cooking our delicious ‘picnic’ lunch, and to wait for the students.  Every year, the elementary schools in my town have a funori tori (picking) day, where students and parents alike volunteer.  All the seaweed collected is cleaned and then either sold fresh or dried, with proceeds going to the school, typically raking in between $2-3,000.  Think bake sale, but not.

A close-up of some long, orange specimens

The day was cold.  In fact, it even snowed a bit.  (Hello? April?) But the weather here moves so quickly that we were able to enjoy a few moments of sunshine now and again as we tromped around the shallows, scraping the rocks bare with our gloved hands, and shoving fistfuls of funori into baskets or large sacks tied around our waists.

Look at this cool new friend I found!

Potato and pork stew on the beach for lunch

After a hearty and delicious, warm lunch, the kids and most of the parents were sent home, while the teachers and a select few of the funori tori veterans went on to the processing station at the port in my town.  There, we dumped in big cargo baskets of the funori into ice-cold water and washed it “clean” with rubber-gloved hands.  Post-soak and -strain, we picked through it manually looking for bits of other seaweed, trash, or errant snails.  In total, over the coarse of several hours, we harvest 350 kilograms of funori from the coasts of Kazamaura, destined for shops around the prefecture, and perhaps beyond.  If anyone fancies a taste, for a small fee, I have considered starting an exporting business to broaden the plump little reaches of funori fingers the world over!  And how delectable!

Washing/picking through the sea gifts

The end result

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The return to school is often coupled with the reminder of butterflies in my stomach, a carefully-chosen outfit, new sneakers, and most poignantly, the crisp feeling of a Maryland Fall morning that warms up as the day progresses.  I recall, year after year, proudly shouldering my newly purchased backpacks, folders inside still clean and shiny, the leaded points of my brightly-colored mechanical pencils still sharp, climbing into one of the many Volvo station wagons of my youth.  Yes.  To me, school and September sit side-by-side in the playground.

Not so in Japan.  The mornings are crisp here, certainly, but not from an incoming suggestion of cold, but from a still lingering reminder of the winter months we fared.  The breeze is warmer coming off the Tsugaru Strait.  Tokyo finally seems to be blowing cherry blossom kisses our way.  I spied yellow and purple crocuses sprouting their cocky heads out front of the Nursery School.  It’s about time.

So, after having endured not one but three separate ceremonies in the last day (Opening Ceremony, New Teachers Introduction Ceremony, and 1st Graders Welcome Ceremony), it seems that the new school year is transitioning smoothly.  In comparison with the elementary schools from which they just came, the incoming 1st Graders were big.  To compare them to the Junior High students, they’re just babies!  Sweet and chubby kid faces poking out of their too-big uniforms.  At the all-school health check (height, weight, eye-sight, etc), they were all made to strip down to their shorts and undershirts; scurrying around, looking naked and embarrassed like Samson after a bath.  The training has already started: the correct way to enter and announce yourself to the Teacher’s Room, the right way to perform cleaning duties, the proper greetings at the beginning of class.  One more day of Orientation and then the fun stuff starts on Monday, with real classes.

In some ways, the beginning of the school year corresponding to the beginning of the warm months makes sense.  Fresh starts abound.  But I can’t get past my own nostalgia and conditioning, where Spring heralds one thing, and one thing only.  The freedom and fun of a full three months of Summer Vacation – where Japanese school kids definitely miss out.

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I discovered today that one of my 3rd year students in Junior High will not be going to High School next year.  Not necessarily because he doesn’t want to (though his effort in school probably indicates otherwise) but largely because his grades are so bad that he is unable to gain admittance into even the lowest-ranking public High School in the region.  Instead, his education will end at the 9th grade level, and he will become a fisherman, working alongside his father, presumably for the remainder of his life.

I get the sense that this case is not an isolated event.  I live in a very small village that’s livelihood is based primarily on a severely dwindling fishing industry, in a prefecture that is consistently ranked as one of the poorest in the country.  While Japan remains a world-leader in many regards, I often perceive my geographical location to be somewhat developing. Many of the old houses around here still have drop toilets that need pumping.  My internet is far from wi-fi, and I trail my DSL cable cord around with me from room to room.  I can tell the students who come from wood-stove heated homes in my classes, since they give off the comforting, yet pungent odor of campfires.  Needless to say, for many students and their families in my village, education is not a priority, and further, this is incredibly evident in the classroom.

Most of my classes are divided into the bright and hard-working students, who are vastly outnumbered by the students who couldn’t really give a damn.  Kids sleep in class.  They hand in homework without a single filled-in mark.  Some are absent at least one day every week.   And what astonishes me is that they are never reprimanded, and are allowed to coast through their Junior High education without encouragement, prodding, or even badgering. In fact, they are pegged from Elementary school as either low-achievers or high-achievers, and the teachers leave it at that.  When questioned why a certain student is never called on in class, the answer I’ve received is: “He is a nice boy but he doesn’t know English.”  Well, of course he doesn’t know English – he’s never been required to actually study it.

Is this hopeless mentality my fellow teachers share a product of the region or is this the nature of education in Japan?  Certain students are expected to excel, and thus energy is put into their development, while the vast number of students are allowed to flounder, and eventually flop, simply because that was the outcome forever expected of them.  What happens to late bloomers who decide to focus on school later in life?  In Japan, it seems that elementary school is the cut-off time when determining how successful of an adult you’d like to be.  Currently, my 3rd year students are nervous and busy figuring out which high school they will attend next year – as even public high schools require a strenuous admission process.  It then goes without saying that the more elite the high school, the better the chance of gaining admittance into a top-notch university.  The better chance of getting a better, higher paying job in the future.  In Japan, you see, it’s all about rank.  I explain this to underline how early Japanese school kids are set up for success or failure in life, and how upsetting it is for me to see teachers give up on students so easily, and at such an early stage.

How frequently my thoughts return to wonder about the difference in Japanese culture in a bigger, more cosmopolitan city.  And all I can figure is that it’s hard for me to say…

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Playing Favorites

I will admit, it is a difficult task for me to be a truly neutral person, and I suspect it is much the same for most others.  It turns out that people have opinions, tastes, and preferences, one sphere of which is preferences for other people.  If humans had no preferences, there’d be no point in finding partners or even surrounding one’s self with friends and allies.  Is it chemical?  Shared interests? A mutually recognized spark of kindred spiritedness?  It’s difficult to say.  I do know, however, that remaining neutral when it comes to preferences in people becomes all the more difficult as a teacher, or really anyone in a mentoring position.

Personally, I find it easy to like the outgoing, bright, little girl who plays soccer with the boys when no other little girls do.  Personally, I find it difficult to like the clingy, cry-baby little boy who throws tantrums and hits people because he can’t use his words.  In the older grades, I find it easy to like the students who participate in class, make eye contact, initiate conversation with me, and are generally pleasant to be around.  Genki. Personally, I find it difficult to like the sullen, meek, or just plain rude kids who talk over the teacher, and don’t try to engage at all.  The glitch lies, though, in the fact that it is often the latter character of student who needs the most support.  And, given my natural human predilections (after all, I generally prefer quick witted and confident adults to dispassionate ones, too) how do I manage to remain open and accessible for the students who might need me most?

In hindsight, my most successful classes from elementary education through college were with teachers whom I liked, and whom probably liked me.  Some of that success also had something to do with what I was good at and I will not downplay the significance that has on both sides of the student-teacher relationship.  I loved 10th grade English with Jim Applebaum because it was interesting, challenging, because I liked him and respected him as a teacher, and because I was good at it.  I was probably treated in such a way because I tried, obviously enjoyed class, and produced solid work.  I can remember certain classes where I felt unliked by the teacher, the subject didn’t click so well, and I’m sure my interactions and input depicted such sentiments accordingly.  So what comes first? The chicken or the egg?

All that said, a teacher like Mr. Applebaum seems to be one of those natural teachers who probably makes every student feel special, regardless of if they are good in his class or not. Was he completely unbiased?  Probably not.  But to be able to look at every student with an eye towards something strong and promising in them is a great place to start, and probably not a bad exercise to take into the greater world of human interaction, either.

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