At last! The real hands on experience is about to begin. We are going into the schools. I had to wonder why on earth they would send secondary teachers into elementary settings. What was the point of that and what would we learn that would be relevant? While I was to learn the answers to those questions, I was immediately grateful for the inspiring experience of sharing in the elementary school day. I must be jaded from working with students who put too much effort into avoiding learning rather than embracing the excitement of experiencing something new. What happens in the transition of aging from a child to a pre teen to a teenager that for many eliminates the joy of learning and the lack of fear to try something new? These children, from first grade to sixth grade came to school, sometimes running, with laughter and smiles. All day long, one couldnt help but notice the happiness in each of their facesthat was whether we were interacting with them or not. Some of what I am about to share will undoubtably shock you as it did me. And I suspect you will react as many of the American teachers did, that would never be allowed in America, though probably all of us recognize the value.
We were to arrive at school before any children arrived as they wanted us to greet the children as they arrived and walked the lengthy tree lined drive that led to the school. There are no buses to bring the children. They either arrive by parent drop off or walk. The children are all in uniform, which for girls looks like a sailor top and skirt and for boys is dress pants and a shirt. All are wearing bright yellow hats. I later found out this is a safety precaution. The yellow hats are very visible even in the dense fog of the morning. Motorists know to watch for the yellow hats.
The students have many items attached, mostly to their back. First there is a structured, leather back pack. Boys are usually black and girls are usually red. I wanted to buy one but learned that they are about $200 or more and grandparents usually buy them for the children to use all through school. Either over the top of that or under it is a cloth, drawstring backpack. Attached on theside is a drawstring pouch that contains their lunch. Hanging from the backpack is a water container.
It took about thirty minutes for all the students to arrive. Near the end of the thirty minutes before school was to start, some students were out sweeping leaves from the drive. Soon some students came out with barrels and they were picking up the leaves. I wondered if these students were on punishment. I learned this is done every morning and the students rotate groups to do it. WOW! Cleaning up the driveway of school of leaves!? Go figure!
This might be a good time to tell you the motto of the school. Here are the parts.
Make an effort to reach your goals
Be a good friend
Show kindness to others
Isnt that what we hope to achieve from all our students regardless of their age or grade?
When the students were about all in, we were led in through a side door. Our shoes had to be removed and slippers put on. We would have these slippers on for the duration of our school day. The big surprise came when we saw the students again. They had all changed clothing and were now in a more casual uniform that is similar to aqua gym shorts and a white t-shirt, tennis shoes and for some, a matching athletic jacket. Hmmm, they must all have PE first, I thought. (not so.)
The American teachers were taken into the gymnasium where all 400+ students were assembled in perfectly straight rows sitting cross legged on the floor. As we were led in, music began to play and the students all rose simultaneously and began to applaud. All the Japanese teachers, administration and school superintendent were lined up along the side and all applauded our entry. A number of welcome speeches and introductions were given by students and administration. The student body performed a couple of songs for us, all sang in perfect unison. We were moved to tears when in English the students sang Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. The length of time it must have taken to learn that song so perfectly is noteworthy. It is not easy to go from English to Japanese or vise versa. As a thank you to the children, we taught them Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. All were dismissed, we were debriefed then sent into the classrooms.
Our first class was to become our home room. We would participate in a lesson then return there for lunch. The students played a game to help them with English. I was surprised at how focused they were on the teacher and not at us, the ‘elephants in the middle of the room.’ The game was a bingo type game that involved food items. The teacher seemed very encouraging and energetic in keeping their attention.
Following this class, we were free to go anywhere in the building and any classes we chose to observe. I went to what I thought was a play room. The teacher gave instructions in Japanese, wrote some things on the board, then the students all got up and began getting things out of the closet. It now looked like a controlled playroom to me. In fact, it turned out to be a social studies class and the students were working at different centers. I never really knew what the activity was but we had so much fun. I wrote the students notes and gave them to them and they wrote me little notes back; some students made me origami and yet other students made me a flower. Every group, at different times invited me to share the activity. Had I of known it was a class, I would not have been so disruptive. Here I am interacting with a few students.
I wandered around for a bit before lunch, visiting the library where there is no librarian, watching the PE class and taking pictures of students during passing time. To the students, we were big celebrities and they wanted notes and autographs from us. Thinking of how they were trying to learn English, I typically wrote, Hello from Ms. Martin and drew a small picture to go with ita flower, a rabbit, a tree or a kitty. It usually was received with laughter at my artwork.
At lunchtime, I returned to my homeroom to watch the lunch procedure. Students began to get out their lunch materials which consisted of a metal tray, covered by a bandana type cloth they brought and their chopsticks in a little case which they also brought. Some students began to get dressed in what appeared to be surgical gowns and masks. These were the servers. They left and came back carrying large metal pots of soup, rice, cases of milk and vegetables. There was also a pan of grilled fish complete with head and skin. The children served me and I ate what I could. When I didnt clean up my plate, I thought I snuck it back into the massive numbers of other plates but I was discovered. Every child and teacher cleans up their plates. I was the only one who left food and was questioned. I felt badlike maybe I had insulted someone. I claimed stomach problemsnot far from the truth. The Japanese diet had been a challenge for me. I would have tried harder to eat it though if I would of known that leaving food is not acceptable.
During lunch, the children tried to communicate with me. I was sitting at a table with seven students. They could answer easy questions like favorite color, age, brothers or sisters etc. They are new at the English game but enjoy the opportunity to try to communicate. When we finished eating, I was invited for a game of dodge-ball. I guess it is still legal there. We had such funit started out gentle until I decided to show a little aggression game on! I was nailed pretty solidly by a bunch of third graders smile.
Following lunch and a little stress relieving game, I experienced the biggest shock I was to have in Japan. It was to witness cleaning time. Every student, every day participates in cleaning up the schoolthey clean floors, dust, clean desks, chalkboards, bathrooms, toilets, sinks, gym floors, halls, and anything else you can imagine. The school is immaculate. There are no custodians. I cannot get over the cleaning. The other thing I noticed is that kids are still kids. They were laughing, joking, racing and generally having fun while they completed their tasks. I shared with the principal my amazement and he told me that they started this at young ages to instill the joy of working. Until this point, the students had been in what I considered PE clothes. Following cleaning, they were back in their formal uniforms.
The rest of the day, I participated in a number of classes. One noteworthy observation is that consistent with Japanese view of health, the desks were not one size fits all. In every room, the desks were different sizes to fit different size children. What a concepta desk that fits. Wonder if this is true at junior high and high school.
The day ended quickly and it ended as it had began, with us lining the drive waving goodbye to all the students as they left. This school visit had definitely been a highlight. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.
posted Monday November 2007