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.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


I'm going to Kyoto today, just for the day, because it's a national holiday, and because I always told myself that city was just a hop, skip, and jump from my own town. It's sunny and windy and mid-late November when the momiji trees are at their best (photos pending).

I've decided that November is in fact the best time to visit Japan (maybe outside of cherry blossom season, but I think I like this one better, personally).

I know I ought to clean my house some more, run more errands, write more here and there and everywhere. But when the weather is good and it's the season to be out there, I just gotta go. Which is why I think I can't do NaNoWriMo very well.

So anyway, maybe as a maple-tree pilgrim, maybe just as a pilgrim, I'm going it hitoride by highway bus and back.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


It’s one of those days where I feel like I have a real job because I dressed all professionally. I took new pantyhose (I like never wear hose) out of their box, put them on under my skirt, and they lasted like a whole 48 minutes without getting a run..!

I just finished my assignment for Kobe conference. And it’s actually pretty damn good, all things considered. All things being, total apathy toward KobeConference assignments (since last year we spent approximately twelve minutes discussing the reports of eight people), a pile of other stuff to do (situation normal), and the directions for the assignment being (and now I’m quoting, because this shit is hilarious) “every participant is requested to prepare one lesson plan that was effective in having students experience a lot of language activities.” The next page details how to format your report (lesson plan? report? essay?) in terms of font, margins, number of words per line and lines per page (no shit). It also provides the title of your.. one page: "”How to Make Team-Teaching Class More Effective in Having Students Experience A Lot of Language Activities.”

I feel like.. if I wanted to poke fun at my mid-year conference’s effectiveness, I could not have done any better. Bless its little heart.

Kobe Conference, actually, is much more about meeting all the Hyogo JETs, having dinner in Kobe, happy hour with said Hyogo JETs, and being strategically placed near movie theatres on Friday when Harry Potter hits the ground in Japan (armed, of course, with our old graduation robes and homemade AWESOMENESS wands! …Just me?).

Apparently it is also about proximity to the Kobe-Sanda shopping outlets for the weekend.

I mean.. I should be exasperated that I’m going to a conference when I should be teaching elementary school (because I’ll do a lot more good in elementary than I will in Kobe, maybe), but I like playing business sometimes.

I disregarded the instructions for the assignment and made it a modified chart-form like I always see lesson plans laid out, and much like I lay them out for myself every other day when I create them for elementary school anyway. Maybe my radical methods will stand out. My lesson plan isn’t half bad either. I think “a lot of language activities” means all four areas (speaking, listening, reading, writing), so I just pulled/modded a day’s lessons we did with the first year class a few months ago that seemed to cover most of them.

Come on language teachers. Let’s not do more. Let’s do less, and do it better. Kids don’t need to learn a thousand more words. They need to learn how to actually use the thousand they are already expected to know.

Monday, November 8, 2010


We complain about the things we miss.. other people could find bacon in the store, decent bacon, but I never knew where to look.

Finally, I found it! I haven’t cooked it yet because on the day I went to make soba, the soba man (formerly my boss/head of the BOE) gave me some home made bacon.

I’m cooking it now. The smell of this bacon could make the gods cry.

One cloud is lonely!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Fall Festival

Last year, Aki Matsuri came to me. This year, since it was on a Saturday (October 16th), I went to Aki Matsuri. I biked there, in fact (which later enabled me to bike to small elementary, etc.)!

Seeing the festival on the shrine grounds was a lot of fun. There were the usual festival food booths, and it was overrun with my kids, many of whom were wearing street clothes which to me make them look totally weird but also reveal their personalities, maybe?

On my little trips around the area accompanying and “translating” for our sister-city visitor, we got to see the red yattai, or mikoshi (portable shrine) in storage, with all the parts disassembled and laid out. It was awesome to get up close to the thing and really look at the intricacy of the woodcarving, metalwork, and stitching that went into it, among other things. The principal said it cost 2-sen-man which I had trouble converting into numbers I could understand.

That comes to $200,000, if the yen were still 100 to 1 on a dollar, which it is not (still bottoming out at like 80.5? As soon as I get my next paycheck, I’m cashing in..!)..

Another bit of information I would like to add is something I learned from Osaki-san at Japanese class. I might be getting some of this wrong, since I get my information from a conversation held entirely in Japanese after a sumptuous meal (as she always prepares) at 8:30 pm which meant I was just full, sleepy, and unreliable as a reporter. Still and all:

When I arrived at Iwa shrine at about 1pm, there were four yattai on the grounds, three doing their thing, one resting. From northmost, red, yellow, pink, and green. I saw a mom I knew and she explained that this year’s leader was green (last year was red; they rotate). Just for reference, my school is actually located closest to the yellow area.

Watched them for a bit, until after the priests (?) brought out a special portable shrine I hadn’t seen before, and all the yattai left the area (I thought they were just going round the neighborhood, like when they went up to my school last year, but I think they went down to the river, which I’m sorry to have missed) then wandered along the row of food stalls out toward the road. Blue was out in the michi-no-eki (road version of a train station..?) parking lot doing their maneuvers.

Then, all five neighborhood-color-coded portable shrines went into the shrine area and did their rocking and rolling.

So anyway, Osaki-san asked me, did the blue team go into the shrine grounds for the festival, and I told her, yes, they were last, but eventually, they did. Then she told me that historically, they were barred from doing so, and in fact, that southmost area of town (down by the river) was not included in the festival in bygone days. Around the Edo period I think, that area built their own shrine and their own yattai too, partly because they were excluded from Iwa.

But why, you may wonder, were they excluded? Was it religious differences? No.. they were all shrine-goin’ Shinto temple-goin’ Buddhist hybrids even then. Racial issues? No.. Japan is amazingly homogenous, racially speaking, even now.

In fact, if I am understanding this right, the whole reason the town was looking down on those people livin’ down by the river is because.. they needed someone to look down on. Which is of course the reason any group gets pushed under.. every group needs someone to feel bigger/better than. But this was so startlingly arbitrary to me. She said, they made them do the jobs no one wanted to do (but it might have been that they already did the dirty jobs, and this was the grounds for their exclusion?) It sounded a bit like low-caste positions in Hindu society, anyway. Osaki-san explained the old system of lords and warriors, then farmers, then merchants and tradesmen… and then the bottom of the heap.

Out here in the countryside especially, people surprise me by how close they are to very deep roots. In the US, most people are not only of mixed heritage, but almost no one I know lives in the house or on the land kept by the family for 8 generations. Japan is like Europe in that the civilization that is there now is pretty continuous from the civilization that was there a thousand years ago. Lots of change, but not anything like the change on the scale to which the Americas have changed.

It was just so surprising to find that human nature is like that, even out in pretty peaceful countryside smalltown Japan. People gotta hate on someone, and so they did.

But the blue guys went in. “Yokatta,” said Osaki-san, and I’m still hard pressed to believe that this is the first year they’ve entered the shrine grounds, like ever. But whether things just reached that point here in 2010, or whether their wait in the parking lot was merely symbolic of the past, today everyone has the right to wear no pants and carry a huge, ornate, portable shrine with a giant drum and four men inside. Well, except chicks.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gaijin Week in our Furusato

*gaijin - foreigner (only, rude, like "freakin ferners")
**Furusato - the countryside hometown to which you return from your cityfied life to like.. say hi to grandma. And stuff.

What a week so far!

Tuesday, of course.. speech contest. My yessir-I'll-win-you-that-speech-contest kid took 3rd place. Today one of the teachers in my desk cluster said "He got third? But he's just in judo club. His English score is like 30 something?" which confused me because the judge scoring system was out of 40 points and I think our kid must have gotten in the thirties, maybe. But actually, he meant his English grades. I laughed because that's the beauty of it.. this kid is not good at "English" as English gets taught and tested around here. But he is good at communicating and speaking and has personality to spare.

Pre-contest! The dude on the right side is not mine.

All in all, the contest went pretty well. The school that has won 1st and 2nd since speech contest inception did not even place. A surprise ringer appeared out of our remotest village to deliver a speech that actually made the English speakers in the audience (our sister-city visitors) laugh out loud. His intonation and rhythm were just too good, and everyone knew he had to take first.

The kid who got second was the very last speaker, and I wasn't especially impressed, but I didn't want to push too much because my kid was in third and it would just look like I was pushing my own school into second. But honestly, honestly, even though I had seen my speech kid do better in rehearsal than he did on that stage, he did a really good job, and I was super proud. I was really proud of my speech girl, too, although she looked pretty sad and disappointed after. I kept telling them both that they did so well. Just because some other kids happened to have done better doesn't diminish that.. but it does prevent them from carrying home the big trophy. All in all, I was really pleased with their performance.

Last year, I wasn't sure what to give my students as presents for being my speech students, but this year I realized that one of the best things you can give someone doesn't always have to come just from you. I asked their classmates to make them cards in which everyone wrote a little message to them, and they did a superb job of that. The cards weren't decorated enough for my tastes, so I took them home to add ribbons and origami stuff, and to write my message on the back. My message was honest, so I didn't bother to try and make the English easy enough for them to read. I figured the important thing would be for them to get the encouragements of their friends while they were waiting in the pre-speech room with all those nervous teenagers.

I wanted to put my arms around each of them, but I think that might have been weird?

Anyway, the following day (aka, yesterday) was the Furusato Matsuri/Gaijinfest 2010. Since there are nine Americans in our town, and one Canadian, I got "bumped" to Canada's booth for the festival. I didn't mind at all because I love our Canadian JET, and we had a host of Japanese ladies helping us, to the point that we basically didn't have to do any of the real work. The festival was pretty fun. It was a beautiful day up at Sponic Park, and being so close to my schools, a bunch of my students were around and about.

Our production team

Front-booth foreigners

We cooked up a mess of pancakes and poutine (which is Canadian for "fries with gravy and cheese") and sold out just after midday. My speech boy's mom stopped by our booth to tell me they had read my message to him and thank me for being so sweet/awesome/whatever. It reminded me a lot of GHP, when the parents get their kids at the end, and they say thank you for "giving up your summer," or thank you for taking care of our kids, or whatever, and you just want to say "No no no no, thank YOU~" ... I actually found myself halfway through saying "No, thank YOU for .. um.. letting him.. come to school..." before I realized that it made no sense at all. HA!

Later on, I snagged some free tissues outside the blood bus (er.. the place where you can give blood), and the dudes were like, hey give us some blood. And I thought about it, and how I hadn't been drinking a lot of water that day, and how that might not be the best idea. I went and bought a gatorade and thought about it. Then I decided I ought to, and when I told my friends I would do that and then we could go home, their reactions confirmed my decision.

I realize giving blood is something not everyone is able to do, whether because of nerves, or blood issues, or whatever. It's not difficult for me, so I do try to do it when I have the opportunity. It reminded me of being a senior in high school and giving blood on Halloween in our costumes. I threw down my blood donor card (Japan version) and got to skip part of the information sheet. Which is good, since it's all in Japanese. I had to get a team of volunteers to help me answer the yes/no question part though. Which is awesome since some of the questions are like "Have you had sex with X Y or Z in your life?"

Beautiful day for a festival!

Today I was assigned to hang out with our visitor from the sister city and "translate" for her. I thought that was kind of a joke, as I thought the rest of our English speaking staff would be coming along. But then they didn't, and it was just me, her, and our principal to visit Iwa shrine and then go make soba out of buckwheat flour. I was amazed at the simplicity of the ingredients, but it was fun, making noodles like that. At the end we ate some of them! I don't have photos from that yet, but I might get the files later from the principal or soba guy.

One fun thing that happened later in the day was our visitor (14 years old, mind you) asked me how old I was. I said 24, then corrected myself to 25. She was surprised. "You look like you're in your teens." Hell yes I do. I get mistaken for being younger than I am a lot, mostly at the airport when kindly airline workers are concerned that I am flying alone (and/or abroad). But now that I've reached my quarter century marker, I guess I can just be pleased with that.

There are other things about being 25..! One of them is, I am finally okay with admitting that I am no longer "too young" to think about certain things, like careers or marriage and families and what have you. More on that later, I think.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Today is speech contest! I am excited. A little nervous, but mostly excited. And mostly because I am ignoring that I have to be a judge, and trying to get into the fact that my kids will be awesome.

Seriously, one of them came into the staff office earlier this morning. The VP said to him in Japanese, "Please win the speech contest today," to which the kid was just like "Hai!" in, yessir, as you wish, sir.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Concludio: Oktober is Over

Well, the windy skies of October have given way to the brisk breezes of November! Actually.. it's much warmer today than it was last week. I had a great birthday and felt all the love from back home. My birthday weekend consisted of Halloween party time and some restful downtime at home. I even got restless and wanted to go running.. but it started raining (which I wanted it to do because of the plants I'd put in the backyard).

One of my dead trees finally fell down in a storm sometime back, so I stuck a little sweet-olive tree in its place. I love those trees, and they smell so good in September. I've also put in pansies, and they're multiplying. I want something pretty to climb the fence by the road, because it currently is just a gross, bent, rusty, peeling green paintjob of a thing.

I'm still fighting the good fight in my head about staying or not staying a 3rd year.

Work last week was a lot more elementary than usual, and even in middle school I was giving the same powerpoint pantomime spiel. I got pretty tired of that presentation. I watched the opening song from Nightmare Before Christmas about 23 times in one week. Halloween activities abound, but how do you attempt to encapsulate this weird holiday for kids who have no experience whatsoever of its traditions? Nightmare Before Christmas is actually, I think, a good component, since it playfully embodies so much of the scary spirit of Halloween!

This week is going to be, secretly, kind of awesome, because work is not at all the same old. Today kind of is, but tomorrow, instead of elementary, we have SPEECH CONTEST. I'm really excited about it this year, despite having to be a judge (I hate being a judge). My kids are rock stars and even if they don't win, I'm really proud of them. Practicing with them has been fun, and their teacher (Mikan-sensei) has been a champion too. South Yamasaki JHS started practice for speech contest, as usual, back in like July or some crap.. but even for all that, there is some chance my kid might win the whole thing.

Wednesday is a holiday, but we're working the Furusato matsuri, aka International Festival?'s in Ichinomiya this year, which means a lot closer to civilization (last year was Chikusa). Instead of being hot-dog group (America 2) or ice-cream group (America 1), I'm poutine group (Canada)! There are so many American ALTs in Shiso that we figured 4 to each group, and then I would help out the one Canadian. ^_^ I rather think it'll be fun.

Then Thursday, instead of elementary, I get to just be an accessory to the show-our-Sequim-girl-around gig. I was just told what this will mean. While last year it meant sitting in the back of a couple classrooms fretting over the way my-life-the-sitcom had just taken a TURN, this year it means playing games with the third years, then going to a nearby shrine or temple ("or something"), then going out to lunch with the kid and principal before visiting Iwa Jinja, then going up the Somegochi valley to make soba.

Sequim is the sister city of Shiso. It's in Washington state, and is a tiny mountainy town kind of like this one. Every year we do an exchange of third-years/ninth graders. A couple of my favorite girls went over to Sequim in early October, and now the Sequim group is coming here. From what I understand, they spend the first several days touring Kyoto and Tokyo and what have you, before coming to Shiso in time for speech contest, International fest, etc.

Friday, it'll be back to the grind, or.. back to small elementary, which is a beautiful and charming place.

Thursday, I stopped by Shorinji Kempo on my way to Salamander, and met Shiso's first ALT (circa 1991) who was there with his wife and daughter. They all live in Washington now, but had come back for a visit.

Over the weekend, I watched some more of the Amazing Race and downloaded last year's application forms. I rediscovered and am using it to study Japanese and the countries of the world. I am still working on concepts for our three minute audition video.

I was a kitsune for Halloween/my birthday (because it just fits, right?) and had a lovely time in Himeji! I am now also the proud owner of a hot glue gun, a rarity in Japan.

I have discovered the wonder that is black tea (especially Earl Grey) brewed a bit strong with some milk mixed in. Happiness in a cup?

I'm sure I forgot something, but that's the view from here!