Posts Tagged ‘education’

Educational History

2011年 9月 1日

Yesterday we had a change in plans. Monday we drove up the Central Expressway to Niigata and were aiming to return by the Hokuriku Expressway for a change of scenery and, presumably, less traffic. As we passed through Matsumoto on our way north, my father-in-law started going on about Kaichi Elementary school and its history. When we stopped in a rest area for bathroom break and stretching our legs, he tracked down a book about Matsumoto and bought it. By the next day, he had thoroughly studied the book and decided we must see it.

You may wonder what would draw him to see the school, so perhaps a little school history and personal history are in order. My father-in-law became a principal in the later part of his career: at age 50 he was the youngest to achieve such position in our prefecture. Although he, like me, bemoans a number of frustrating points in the education system (and likely retired early because of them); he still feels an unbreakable bond to the education system.

In 1872, during the Meiji Restoration, there were major education reforms taking place and the lord of Matsumoto Castle felt the importance of good education. With that motivation he opened the Kaichi school in 1873 and it is still continuing its history today, making it the oldest existing school in Japan. Of course it has been housed in different buildings and has been physically relocated; however, it continued from its original charter. The building we went to see is apparently the front portion of the second school building (c. 1876) and is used as a museum and historic site today.

One point about this school and other historical schools I have visited which bothers me is the student artwork displays. There are 140 years of school history to choose from; however, the large display of student artwork is from 1942 and, let us say, it is fairly hateful overall. When I was in Iga-Ueno I had the same experience. Why there is a conscious decision to focus on this element is beyond me. It is definitely not the focus of persons in general society, so the focus is coming from education historians or someone related to these projects. On the other hand, furniture, textbooks, and other historic materials are displayed from various periods.

Since we were in the area, we also stopped by Matsumoto Castle.

New Words

2010年 7月 27日

In Japan there are three sets of characters used conventionally for writing. Two smaller sets are phonetic, the third set are kanji (漢字) which mostly have their origins in China. In China, thousands of these characters are used; however, Japan limits these to about two thousand.

Officially there are “common use” characters which are considered sufficient for – well, for lack of better words – common use. The list is apparently insufficient, as we often see characters outside of the list appearing in common places like, the newspaper, memos at school, in test instructions, on menus, etc. Naturally, expanding the list would seem appropriate. After all, if something is in common use, perhaps it would make sense for it to be on the common use list.

To that end, the government has once again modified the list. One downside of this is that students were already stressed to learn the characters necessary for their tests, and now it just got a little tougher. I want to write more about this topic when I have time, but for now, one amusing point we noticed at lunch while perusing the list: a lot of food-related characters have been added.

  • Kushi 串 are skewers for little shishkabobs
  • Usu 臼 is a mortar or quern for grinding tea, buckwheat, etc
  • Kama 釜 is a kind of iron pot for making special dishes at the table
  • Kuzu 葛 is a vine which is cooked down into a pudding texture
  • Kaki 柿 is a persimmon, a hard, orange fruit
  • Futa 蓋 is a lid for a pot
  • Sen 煎 refers to a method for making teas
  • Shin 芯 is the heart of a plant, for example, leeks
  • Shiri 尻 is the rump
  • Hashi 箸 are chopsticks
  • Nabe 鍋 is a pot
  • Nashi 梨 is a pear
  • Don 丼 is a bowl of rice with meat or something served on top
  • Men 麺 refers to noodles
  • Mitsu 蜜 is honey or nectar
  • Hoo 頰 is a cheek or jowl
  • Mochi  餅 is special rice which is pounded and turned until it makes a sweet, glutenous, marshmallow like goodness to pop in your mouth. Yes, I like this, if you couldn’t tell.
  • Kago 籠 is a basket

And a few loosely connected, because people here might eat them, but not everyone.

  • Kuma 熊 bear
  • Kame 亀 turtle
  • Shika 鹿 deer

What does this mean? “Food is important in Japan”; or “Japanese people will eat almost anything”; or “Hey, it’s just 10 percent of the new characters, it doesn’t mean anything special”.

I’ll try to digest the entire article and post a little more on the topic.

I Didn’t Learn it the Fourth Time

2010年 7月 16日

Normally I try to keep my titles from getting too long, but today I really wanted to write: “I didn’t learn it the fourth time: I learned it the first time.” Most of the schools where I teach only employ one assistant language teacher (ALT) each. This means my closest colleagues are people I generally don’t get to meet and with whom I have few common experiences. One of my schools is special in that two of us visit there.

Were that the only special characteristic of the school I would have nothing to post. Many of the children there have physical or emotional issues which greatly affect the learning environment. For example, every morning a host of teachers are on the phone calling various houses to find out why students haven’t arrived at school yet. Occasionally they left home and are ‘wandering’ to school, but sometimes the parents seem equally troubled and disconnected, and they just didn’t get the kids ready for school. Another special circumstance is that the class sizes are much smaller… I like this point a lot.

My fellow ALT was talking to me about good and bad points of how things are run at that school. We both agreed that there is a bit of Pygmalion teaching. From third grade to sixth grade, the children have had almost exactly the same lesson plans over and over. I appreciate that they are trying not to overburden these children and keep things fun and light; however, challenging them a little and encouraging and helping them when there is trouble might be a better tactic. Since we are just ‘assistants’ we can’t officially say much about it, so we continue on.

Last week, I was teaching the sixth grade a lesson about colors and playing a couple games. A few of the students were off in some other world, when suddenly on student let out a voice coated in true desperation: “This is exactly the same lesson we’ve been learning for four years!” I was laughing on the inside. Perhaps it is time to review the curriculum.

The Whistling Season

2010年 1月 20日

Thanks to an unusually long train ride yesterday and a phenomenon mentioned on a fellow blog, I have now completed reading The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. Overall I found it enjoyable, thought-provoking, and challenging.

The story centers around the Milliron family and is narrated by Paul, the eldest son. At the time of telling – 1957 – he is 61 years old, and the overwhelming bulk of the story takes place in 1909; our narrator is 13 years old, a 7th grader in a one room school house in rural Montana. After hiring somone to clean their home (being a household of consisting entirely of males who are too busy or uninterested to get that important chore straight) their lives start changing, later a peculiar teacher is hired and again their lives shift in ever more unimaginable ways.

Often modern storytellers, particular the Hollywood variety, leave me dissatisfied because they either write stories I find too predictable or they struggle to avoid the first condition by making wild, unbelievable left turns. Ivan Doig proves he adept at protecting me from both of these let-downs. Many twists and turns pop-up, surprising me greatly, but never violating my trust and suspension of disbelief.

Considering an authors background had really been on my mind lately after re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s linguistics background is key to the entire work. Likewise Doig is a history PhD and it repeatedly shines through in this volume as timing of many actual events lace into those generated for the story.

Classifying this novel would be difficult. It is definitely a coming-of-age story, but it also promotes thought on how culture shifts over time, it addresses love and mourning and conflict, it’s a drama, but also almost a mystery, and it strongly addresses issues of education from teaching method to administrative process.

When the country school gets their new teacher, he rambles, he gets excited, he takes unorthodox approaches, but he always is thinking about how to get ideas into heads and motivate curiousity. Also he carries something (or things) mysterious from his past, which consumes much of the readers concern nearly throughout the story. I found myself identifying with this character, for better or worse: often I try to tie odd concepts into my lessons, seeking to challenge how students perceive relationships of knowledge. Many a time, home room teachers are cocking their heads and squinting at me, but occasionally they also get my point and reinforce it at the end of class in much more elegant Japanese than I can generate. Fortunately, the children seem to grasp these flights more often than not.

Our character list is long, and many characters have multiple nicknames, like Tobias, aka Tobe, aka Toby, aka Peg Leg Pete the Pirate. I kept a page in a notebook where I was scratching down all the family connections and school connections. Doig has an amusing (annoying) habit of introducing people in different manner at different times, like “the two sets of Drobny twins”, “the Drobny brothers”, “Seraphina and Eva Drobny”, “the entire 6th grade”, “Sam Drobny”, … figuring out who was being referred to was sometimes like one of those logic puzzles (i.e., The blue car is next to the green car, neither Mr. Smith nor Mrs. Jones drives a blue car, the cat owner drives a green car, …) I have at least 64 characters scratched on my list, plus at least five horse or pets. While the list is long, most of them include development and add to the story, so they are worth their weight.

Although, I can be an intellectual snob, my one complaint would have to be the way Latin is addressed, almost as if the average reader should be able to understand tricky sentences. Fair portions of the Latin discussion went right over my head, and I would expect even more would be lost on the average reader. This didn’t ruin anything for me, but a lot of it seemed unnecessary. On the other hand, a few times he deftly slipped enough explanation into the dialog that it just seemed natural to have the Latin there.

Yesterday’s long train ride is due to timing. After a meeting, I ended out at the train station before the proper end of my work day and long before the express train. Apparently there are some folk almost spying on the foreign city workers looking for complaints to stir up, so sitting and having tea near the station at that hour would be unwise. I hopped a local train for an hour ride home, reading all the way, and almost missing my stop because my nose was in the print.

As someone pointed out on a book-related blog, they often read faster and faster as they get deeper into a work. Certainly, this was the case for me with this one. Perhaps getting more adjusted to an authors style allows the faster reading, yet another factor plays in here; I found myself more and more invested in the story as things progressed.

I Can’t Stand That

2009年 11月 16日

My biggest pet peeve as a teacher is hearing the words, “I don’t understand.”, “I don’t get it.”, or “Impossible!” while I am explaining something. Japanese students often believe that they can’t do things, particularly when it comes to learning English. Everyday on the TV they can hear many comments on the news or on talk shows, or from comedians about how English is impossible or at least for Japanese. Many of them in the more hard line areas also hear from family members that it is too hard, or sometimes that they are Japanese and, hence don’t need it. Sadly, I also hear comments from teachers reflecting the same attitudes. A big hurdle for me is to convince people who want to learn, that it is actually a possibility. Otherwise, they won’t invest the necessary effort.

While explaining a simple question and response type activity to students, one student spent half the time staring at his shoes and the other half entertaining a friend behind him. Turns out, he was the first to do the activity, and just stared through me and repeated, “I don’t understand.” Next I tried saying his line, so that he could just repeat it; however, I got the same response. Finally, in a fit of optimism, I reversed the order so that he would be last.

Clearly explaining in Japanese that if the students on his side of the room were willing to pay attention, they should understand the question and response very well after hearing 30 some odd people repeat it. The first few students on the other side of the room struggled a little, and I helped them a lot and reassured them even more. Around the middle of the room the pace quickened and the totally clueless were few. Elation swept over me and deceived me.

Wasting all the time with the “I don’t understand” conversations drained the clock. One of the jokers in the last row let out an energetic, “Yossha!”, which is pretty much a, “We did it!” (Irritated that they felt their time-wasting tactics would reap them some rewards, I ignored the bell and continued.)

From the middle of the room to the start of the last row, the pace was native-speaker fast: amazing what cutting into their play period can do to increase motivation. My joy was somewhat quenched when the final row struggled through and ultimately, when I got to the final student… and he said, “I don’t understand.”

As a saving grace, he was at least willing to repeat after me for his line.

Tired and Persevering

2009年 4月 7日

April is always a little busy because it is the start of the new school year. This year, we have to use Ministry of Education (文部科学省) mandated textbooks for the fifth and sixth grade classes. No special training has been provided for the new system and books and software; also, copies of the books are shown to us occasionally, but rarely given to the teachers. It is crazy, I think I irritated my boss when I phoned him to tell him it was annoying.

One important job discovery has been that my boss works for the City Board of Ed. and the principals at my schools have contracts through the Prefectural Board of Ed.; and neither group wants to cover our expenses. They are constantly putting me in the middle and telling me to directly request things like purchase of textbooks. I am tempted to show up with excerpts from the labor code for them, but don’t want to rock the boat (despite evidence to the contrary).

My first classes are tomorrow and I still feel completely unprepared. Normally I would feel comfortable teaching a first lesson with little preparation, but we are being told to stick to the lesson plans published by the Ministry. If I had a copy to peruse at night, I would be pretty relaxed.

Also, I have to keep my energy level up because I personally don’t like the philosophical approach of the new mandates. Most people agree that the compulsory education in junior high is ineffective. I had the mistaken impression that the Ministry was creating the elementary education system to promote earlier learning (something, I think is proved to be successful); however, their goal is actually to prop up the junior high system, as is, by creating ‘desire’ to study through ‘fun’ classes at elementary school. First, I think they should be working on improving the junior high system. Second, while ‘fun’ classes can increase ‘desire’, they missed the boat by thinking ‘simple’ = ‘fun’. This program is designed to be unchallenging and some of my students have already learned everything that they are going to be ‘taught’ this year. Imagine spending 35 class hours studying stuff you know. My fear is that boredom will generate a distinct lack of interest in studying.

Regardless, this is the new system and we must teach it, so I need to be prepared to highlight it’s strengths for the students. If I go in with a bad attitude, the students will eat me and the system for lunch. Fortunately, most of the schools know me and will let me teach additional materials, so long as we cover the course material and I’m not ‘pushing’ the kids too hard.

Searching for that balance…

The Tide Washes Over Me

2009年 2月 12日

My backlog of “I’ll post this soon” and “I’ve got to research this before I write it” and “I need photos to post with this” is growing by the day. I haven’t even uploaded the photos of the Christmas present I made for my girlfriend yet. I was going to post one of the “research needed” entries tonight, but it is already 9pm and I have to leave at 8am for my vacation. If I wasn’t so tired, I’d give it a whirl.

Instead, how about some updates?

  • Sometime this year I am hoping to move to Ise, but I will continue working for the Tsu Board of Education (for the time being).
  • Tomorrow and Saturday I will be on vacation in Kyoto for Valentine’s Day. I think most of the time will be spent shopping or eating. I haven’t decided if I will tote my camera along.
  • Sunday looks like ice skating and hot spring soaking in Iga. (Maybe I will post the Sunday Soundcheck tonight because of the crazy schedule.)
  • I have been watching my food intake a little and feel like I am trimming down. I am wearing pants that have been sitting in a drawer for two years. Tonight I had two fried eggs with whole wheat bread, a mandarin orange, and a plate of sliced cucumber and tomato for dinner.
  • Muscle soreness from skiing has peaked and is fading away. My legs must be in good shape; all the soreness is in my back and ribs.