Lessons at school

Returning to Japan after a hiatus of almost 20 years, I’ve had to really be aware of outdated assumptions and have been sometimes surprised at how much (and sometimes how little) things have changed. The presence of the web is the most significant change but that isn’t particular to Japan. However, having access to information outside of my immediate environment makes me feel more connected than I did when I was here before. Certainly I won’t find myself opening packages and pressing the newspaper padding to read news from “home.”

This past week I visited 5 more elementary schools and was reminded again how much Japan has changed over the past two decades. Every day I eat lunch with a group of students in their classroom and we chat about all sorts of things from the age of my parents to the best game to play at recess.

Typical school lunch: Grilled fish with vegetables, roll, cherry tomatoes, cabbage & noodles & bacon soup, and whole milk.

The other day in a fourth grade classroom, the teacher was mentioning that he used to go to school six days a week ( kids only go five now)…several kids expressed surprise and said that they wish they could go six days a week. Of course, not everyone agreed, but the main reason for going to school was to see their friends and to do some more fun exploration (experiential activities) at school.

I have been enjoying looking at the different elementary (grades 1-6) schools and observing how the standardized curriculum is implemented in large (up to 400 students) and small (as few as 6 students) schools. There is a lot of variety in how the content is covered and also a surprising amount of flexibility. In a school we (J. and I) visited on Thursday we had lunch with a group of fifth graders who invited us to help plant rice during their sixth period. Each grade in the school is given a plot to grow vegetables every year and they decided that they wanted to grow rice instead of vegetables. It turns out that in their neighborhood along the coast there are no rice fields and they wanted to try growing it. So they took their vegetable plot, dug out all the dirt and lined the bottom with a blue plastic sheet.

They then put the dirt back in and filled it with water. All of the planning and strategizing was done by the kids. When we showed up to help, the kids were standing around with no adults present organizing themselves into small groups and discussing how hey would proceed to get the tanbo (rice field) planted. They had it all figured it out and started before their teacher appeared. Thye weren’t sure how many seedlings to plant in each spot, so they listened as a few of them gave their opinions and reasons. Then they made a group decision. They did all this decision making and got the plot planted in a 45 minute period!

This all happened after an assembly where the kids reported on the previous week’s sports festival 運動会 at their weekly assembly. (The festival is normally held in September, but this year the national games will be held in this prefecture in September so schools here changed the date to June. This presented some difficulties because the school year had just begun in April and there wasn’t as much time for preparation). The students ran the entire assembly calling it to order, announcing who would present, and finally ending the assembly and sending the students back to their classes. For this week’s presentation, one student from grades 2-6 and 4 students from grade 1 were called up to the front and they each read or recited their composition about the sports festival. At the end, the student president asked if there were any comments about the presentations. Several students in the audience raised their hands and were called on to say what they thought. The comments ranged from “I was impressed at how well the first graders presented today” to “I was impressed at how “student A” spoke so well about the tug-of-war.” A couple of teachers also offered their impressions. I was so impressed to see kids so much in charge and so supportive of each other.

On Friday we took a boat out to an island school and taught the 15 kids there. Each school is so different, yet the enthusiasm of the students and the positive learning environment is pervasive.

It is pouring rain….the rainy season (梅雨) is really here. Looking out the back window…the rice was planted last Monday.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the awkward English usage on signs and t-shirts. job security

One thought on “Lessons at school

  1. Sue Mecklem June 17, 2008 / 2:10 pm

    What a great blog, Kate. It’s great learning more about Japanese education; I really didn’t have a clue. It’s wonderful that the students are able to collaborate on a project so easily. I don’t remember much collaboration in jr. high!

    Enjoy your adventure!


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