Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Students in the USA

How much do you remember from middle school?

I'm supposed to present to the first-years (7th grade age) on Friday about American schools, and I am specifically targeting MS and JHS level just because that is what they are in and that is what they would identify with, I think. But it's staggering to me how much of my memory and even photo collection is almost entirely from high school.

I'm trying to recreate in my mind the kinds of classes we had, what it was like to be there, the lunchroom and food, the school bus. All things pretty much foreign to these kids who bike to school and eat in the classroom every day.

First of all, a "middle school" is different from a "junior high school" in that MS is normally grades 6-8 (in my case, 7-8), while JHS is 7-9. I didn't know that. But it does explain why 中学校 (chuugakkou), which is quite literally "middle" and "school" gets translated as junior high school.

The major differences between my middle school life and the lives of my Japan JHS students might surprise you. I've already mentioned taking the bus to school, while most of my kids bike or walk. This is perhaps part of the reason for the small sizes (relatively) of the school where I work, compared to where I grew up. (The other reason is shrinking population and location of course) There are more schools serving smaller areas. I went to a larger school serving a larger geographical space.

Teachers where I'm from have (more or less) their own classrooms which they decorate to their subject, and students rotate based on their schedules into the corresponding rooms. Here, the teachers ferry themselves and their materials for each class from the teacher's office into the classroom. Ownership, then, of that room is more the class. The major advantage is that the kids are more responsible for taking care of it, here. In the US we do not have "souji," or cleaning time. In Japan we have it every day, about fifteen minutes in which everyone cleans their assigned space. This eliminates the need for a custodial staff (kinda.. there is the one lady who is in charge of all that, but she doesn't clean every room each day) which makes sense, at least in a school as small as this one (student population about 170).

But the major drawback of teachers not having their own subject-specific rooms is that every room looks the same. In this case, pretty dingy (old building, years of half-assed cleaning technique by generations of students), and each classroom is decorated with general announcements and some photos or memorabilia of the class's achievements to date. Rather than the math room being full of math posters, stocked with math materials. I like to have all my shit at hand in case I want to change the plan (ever so slightly) on the fly. There is a special room for science lab, and one for art, and a music room, but all the more regular subjects just use the class's room.

This also means that all the students in a class will be taking their classes together. Where I'm from, we mixed it up. It was more exciting because, even if your BFF wasn't in your homeroom, they might be in your science class, or English, or something.

Of course the food is different. The eat in the classroom and everyone gets the same stuff. You don't really get a choice here, and are expected to eat all of it. At my MS, there were like four lines of choices, and if you had some extra money you could buy an ice cream or some other little side item. The cafeteria experience is so fundamental to my concept of school lunch that I hardly differentiate between elementary, where there was one line and you chose your food as you moved along it, to the upper schools where you first picked a line, then the sides that went with it.

I'm trying to recall it, and I think we had seven classes a day (my students here in Japan have between five and six). Rotating within your "team" you went to math, science, social studies, language arts, and English lit, then there was the trifecta of chorus, band, or PE (of which you were in one), and finally a six-week stint in each of the rotational classes: art, technology, Spanish, French, computers and typing, and possibly music. I feel like there had to be six, but I can only generate memories of those first five.

Sports at my middle school were never my cuppa, but I'm looking at their webpage now and it seems like there isn't much on offer. Basketball teams exist, then there is an intramural volleyball thing, then all the clubs are very service-intellectual oriented (Jr. Beta, Science Olympiad, Yearbook, Peer Helpers, Student Council, etc.), and I remember only meeting with my club like once a month or something (I was on the Perspicacity Press, or student newspaper, you betcha). Here where I work, clubs are a huge deal and meet every day, morning and afternoon, to practice. Most of them are athletic clubs, with the exception of maybe the band, because they don't march much.

The band at my old middle school looks like it's still in swing, along with chorus and an orchestra. Nice.

Anyway, I'm going to have a field day because the first-year class is the group who likes to ask questions and is full of kids who show genuine curiosity about what I have to say. It is for this reason I love them.

Finally, I'd like to note that the photos from American schools in the textbook are all pretty awful. I'm trying to figure out whether it's the awkwardness of that age, or because all the pictures are from the early-mid nineties. I think it's both.

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