26 October 2007

My Middle School Mutiny

Most of the people with whom I talk about my life at school are of the opinion that Japanese children are some of the smartest, most attentive, and most respectful students one can find. It is a "truism" regarding most any student of Asian descent. However, social psychology teaches us that there are similar, "common sense" statements to cover most any sentiment. In this case, it would be the following:
Kids are the same everywhere.
I have to agree with the latter. My students aren't awful, but they aren't the angels many would have had me believe before I came here.

The past few weeks have been stressful in this regard. As I have mentioned before, the second years are generally thought to be little demons here. Now, I teach 8 classes of 18 second year students, and I can fairly well say that there are maybe one or two true troublemakers in each of those classes. There are a few others others who, because they are the cool kids, laugh at the antics of the troublemakers, or talk in class, or ignore the teachers. However, all of this I see as being fairly normal for any middle school setting. (It's one of the reasons why, when I was considering being a teacher in America [waaay back when], I decided I would never teach in a middle school. [I followed that decision ever so well...]) The last two weeks, however, have shown me quite a few things I wasn't expecting.

All of the worst second years hang out together, and they have adopted a first year into their midst. A few of them came into school last week with vicious cigarette burns on the back of their hands. I asked one of my English teachers who had done it to them, and she gave me the strange look I'm growing ever-so-accustomed to that means I'm missing some obvious point. The answer: "They did it to themselves."
It made a little sense, once I got over the instinctive horror at it. In Japan, the gangsters (yakuza) wear signs of pain as badges of strength, covering everything from having massive amounts of tattooing to missing fingers. As these kids are the ones who most admire the "screw you" sentiment gangsters hold toward authority figures, it's not surprising that they'd mimic their manners of showing strength.

After that, two of the (male) troublesome students showed up at school wearing earrings. This is clearly against the rules, and yet both refused to remove them. This caused a commotion amongst the staff, because one of the two, the adopted first year of the group, disappeared, and his whereabouts were unknown until well after dark. My teachers considered this a very serious issue, especially for his homeroom teacher, Tanaka-sensei, who is my supervising English teacher at the middle school. Tanaka-sensei had yelled at the kid after he refused to remove the earring, and the student's disappearance was blamed to this strongly negative response. That evening, there was a teacher's meeting until 6:30 to discuss what had been done and what should have been done ... and it started at 4:30. (I, thankfully, had left by that time and didn't have to take part.)

Since then, there have been more attempts at playing hookey, more battles over earrings, destruction of school property, and, to top it all of, parents being called into the school to discuss the behavior of their children. One of these parents started yelling at the vice-principal about the whole affair, insisting that there be infinite justification for every school rule her son had broken. The idea of yelling at the vice-principal makes my entire insides cringe in a way I can only associate with someone scraping their nails down a blackboard. (One of my teachers reacted by saying the mother "must be a little crazy.") More meetings have been had, and these trouble students have been a fairly constant presence in the staff room. As a first year is involved, my "island" of desks is often taking part in these difficult moments.

Now, all of this being said, I'm not directly involved myself. In the first place, my position as an ALT is one that is explicitly defined as one "not taking part in any disciplinary actions," as it hurts our ability to associate with the students. We aren't teachers - we are there to inspire multilingualism, and we do that in being friends with the students, not by being disciplinarians. On top of this, there's little I could do, were these rules regarding my position not in place. My utter lack of Japanese, as well as my smaller physical size and strength, make me a poor player in the discipline role. To a certain extent, I'm thrilled by this excuse - it lets me turn a blind eye to things with which I have little ability to deal. On the other hand, however, I feel all the stress of my coworkers, and I feel guilty that I cannot help minimize their stress. Again, my lack of Japanese makes me unable to even understand what needs to be done, much less offer to do it in any tactful way.

On top of this ... I don't know that I feel the way the teachers are handling this situation is the best way. For example, the Japanese thought that "all students should have an equal chance at learning" means that students must always be in the classroom. This means that troublemakers cannot be "sent to the principal" for discipline; they must, at all times, remain in the classroom in order to have a chance at learning, even though this means they are hurting the potential learning of others. So, whenever the aforementioned students played hookey, the teachers went on a full-out manhunt. Two teachers making three or more phone calls each because three students left school after lunch...it still seems extreme to me. I can't help but feel that, were these kids allowed to miss class every once in a while, they would get some of their rebelliousness out of the way. So it's hard for me to see a kid get yelled at, forced to sit in the staffroom and eat his lunch, when I can't help but feel that this is exactly why he's trying so hard to run away from it all. It's not my place to voice these opinions, especially when I don't have a solution of my own, but it does add to the stress I feel regarding the situation.

I decided last night that I would try to start doing nice things for the teachers in my own way, as I am of little direct help in this situation. I'm going to give a try at making some sort of nice treat this weekend to bring in on Monday, and I'm working on other ways to give my teachers a smile. It's all I can do, at it may help my levels of stress a little, even if it isn't a help in the situation.

All being said, though, it's an interesting time to be at Ikushina Chuugakkou.

25 October 2007

My Coworkers, My Family

AKA: …I think I’ve been adopted.

The day of the Speech contest, I was fortunate enough to be able to eat an early lunch with my two contest students. I say this because there is little as revealing, or as entertaining, as the open conversation of two middle school girls. My favorite topic, though, was “which of the teachers would be which family member in your family?”

In Japan, the students stay in one room and the teachers move from class to class. The teachers’ roost, then, is the staff room. We have a meeting for 10 minutes every morning, most teachers have at least two free periods a day, and most teachers are required to stay around school for at least an hour after classes are over, so there are plenty of opportunities to get to know one’s coworkers. Add to this the fact that I’m the youngest staff member here by a decade at least, and a foreigner to boot, and it’s very clear that I have been adopted.

So, my new family.

Kouchou-sensei (“kouchou” means “principal” – his name is Kamiyama, but no one ever calls him by this, using his title instead as a sign of respect) is most assuredly a grandfather figure in my new family. He’s always smiling and laughing, and everyone here really loves him. He used to be an English teacher, so we communicate well, and he has a little of the “bumbling older man” type to him, which only makes him more endearing.

On the other side, Imayasu-sensei is clearly a grandmother figure. She is one of the part-time English teachers here, and she takes care of me in a way none of the other teachers do. She is quick to compliment, but will push me to learn as well. For example, she helped me to get my kotatsu (a table with a space heater built into it; you put a quilt over it and just sit in wonderful warmth) and forced me to ask the store clerk for it myself instead of doing it for me. She’s great, and I love her warmth and her easy laugh.

I’ve talked about Saito-sensei already; he’s tough to categorize. I think the best I can say is that he is like a dad, but a dad who clearly knows that his child is now an adult and has thus toned down the parenting shtick. He really watches over me, he brags about me to other teachers, he laughs at my jokes (even if they’re only funny because I used a word in Japanese instead of English). In short, he’s an awesome person to have sitting next to me in the office.

Kuwako-sensei and Takayanagi-sensei are easy. The former is one of the office managers; the latter is a part-time English teacher who has wonderful English, both spoken and written. Both of them are clearly my older sisters. I couldn't ask for better, especially as they are usually the ones updating me on the office gossip.

Kumaki-sensei is another teacher I have mentioned before. She qualifies as the fun aunt, the one who says “hey, let's go drink!” and always compliments my fashion sense. She's been having a rough time of it as of late, thanks to some student problems, but she always manages to give me a nice smile or compliment my projects.

I'm going to stop here, though I feel I'm slighting a lot of my teachers by not mentioning them. Rest assured that my family has an older brother, several cousins, several uncles, and even a few neighbors. My general point is that, after being here for just shy of three months and not being able to speak much Japanese, I have been so well accepted, a point which continually astounds me. As my students would say, “Rukii!” (the Japanese way to pronounce “lucky”).

Oh yes, of course I have to mention the results of the speech contest. My students did really well! Only one placed (my “lived in the States for 5 years” student won 3rd place out of 14 “I lived abroad in an English-speaking country” students), but both of them had wonderful speeches and gave them flawlessly. I'm so proud, but even more so I'm glad that the whole ordeal of the contests is finally over. Cheers to that!!

10 October 2007

Ikushina Shougakou

AKA: Where Cute Comes to Stay

Today marks the end of my first day of classes at the elementary school. I taught the special education class (one child - shy, but very willing to play games, etc) and three classes of 2nd graders.

Diagnosis: SO. FREAKING. CUTE.

As soon as all of the students were in the classroom and sitting down, I said hello to everyone. I said it to the group, I said it to individuals ... they were all giggling by the time I was done. After a long string of "hello"s, I suddenly switched to "goodbye"...and left the classroom. My first class of 2nd graders nearly died. A loud "EEEHHHHH????" came from the room, and lots of laughing when I re-entered with a loud "hello!"

After that, we practiced the vocabulary I had decided on - fruit. The noteworthy part of this was what I'm going to start call "Emotion Repetition," something I got from another ALT here. I drew four faces on the board: happy, sad, angry, and surprised. The kids were already getting wound up as I was drawing, yelling out "Oooh! It's crying! How sad!" or "Oh!! That one's angry!" in Japanese. We then practiced saying the names of the fruits with that emotion. I had a hard time not laughing after every single one of the repetitions. Kids are such great mimics, so I kept hearing my exact inflection being thrown back at me (something that doesn't happen at all in the middle school). Add to this the fact that they really, REALLY loved the "angry" repetition, and, well... you don't know cute until you have a room of 30 kids growling "WATERMELON!" at you.

After I was pretty confident of their abilities to identify the fruits, we played a game called "Fruit Basket." It's a Japanese game that's sort of like a mix of duck-duck-goose and musical chairs. I gave everyone a card with a fruit on it and then stood in the middle and said the name of one of the fruits we had studied. Everyone with that fruit on their card had to switch places, while I took someone's seat. Thus, there was a new person in the middle who had a yell a fruit, and so forth. The trump card was yelling "fruit basket!" at which everyone had to change places. It was incredibly fun and cute. We ran around like crazy people. Kids wiped out trying to sit down first. There was utter chaos. But we played this game for some 25 minutes, an impressive feat for 8 year olds, and they LOVED it. I had another activity planned, but the kids were having so much fun that I just made them change cards and let the game continue.

My face hurts from smiling and laughing. It was incredible. Kids are not allowed to be that cute.

I also ate lunch with one of the classes, which was insanely adorable. After much debate as to where I would sit, I ate at the front of the classroom so everyone could see me. They were asking me a bunch of questions the entire time ("How old are you? EEHHH?? 22!!"; "What is your favorite fruit?"; "What is your favorite vegetable?"; "What is your favorite sport?"; "How do you write your name? EHHH!! It's so long!!"; "Do you have a boyfriend?"; "What is your favorite bug?"; "Can you speak Japanese?"). One kid kept running up to my desk and babbling at me in Japanese; he even started reading to me out of a book at one point. I don't think he managed to eat half of his food because he was too busy chattering at me. Other kids in the class kept coming up and either steering him back to his desk or physically picking him up and moving him there, which would last for some three seconds before he was back at the desk and chattering away. It was hilarious. The teacher told me later that he usually hates English class, but he enjoyed class today so much that he got excited when he saw me at lunch, too.

What do we call that? We call that "the BEST COMPLIMENT EVER."

This experience is completely different from what I have gotten from my middle school. The kids there are so jaded by studying and school that they can't be bothered with games and fun. On the other hand, the kids here are almost too excited by the foreigner making a fool of herself at the front of the class. It was a tiring but wonderful experience, and I can tell it will always be the highlight of my week.

07 October 2007

Exercise or Exorcise?

AKA: "I gotta devil in the back wheel, back wheel, back wheel..."

In my adult class a couple of weeks ago, I had to explain the phrase “one hell of a _______.” God must’ve been planning ahead in his providence, ‘cause the only way to describe this week is by starting off with “well, everyone, it’s been one hell of a week.”

My bike is one that Pete, my predecessor, got me from one of his friends. I don’t know how old it is or how its previous owner used it, but I’m pretty sure that whatever they did made the back wheel an especially appealing living space for demons. It's the only explanation. For example, the back tire went flat one day; I can accept that this was likely because I was being an idiot and rode over a rock or somesuch. I went to get it fixed on a Friday and it was completely flat fewer than 24 hours later and for no apparent reason. Even better – when I found that it was completely flat was not when I was at home, but when I was at a train station and needed to ride this bike some 20 minutes in order to *get* home. (That was fun...) But I was unsuspecting of the demonic nature of this wheel, so I swallowed the $35 cost of fixing the same wheel twice in one weekend and figured I had to be more careful.

Zip forward to this past Monday morning. I was late leaving the house, and was hurrying on my bike to school. This of course meant that the lights were against me the whole way. Good news: there’s only one light to be against me between my apartment and the school. Bad news: the demon in my back wheel decided that my short stop at the light was clearly a time to wreak havoc. The light changed, I moved forward...and my bike decidedly did not. I thought the chain had fallen off (which has happened before on this bike), or something had gotten stuck in the back gear (again, has happened before). Investigation proved my theories wrong and offered no other solution, so I ended up carrying my bike the rest of the way to school – a good 5 minutes of walking. This, of course, made me late. Normally I wouldn’t care, but being late is a big deal around here, especially for foreigners; we're stereotyped as being so uncaring of the time of others that we're habitually late. At least my Kyoto-sensei (vice-principal; the one who cares if I’m late) got a kick out of my sob story about the bike and the fact that I was sprinting in to school once I got my bike locked inside the school gates, so I wasn’t in trouble.

What was the problem? The spokes on the wheel were broken. Thus, the wheel had collapsed on itself and bent the frame of the wheel, making the tire scrape against the bike frame in such a way that the wheel could not move forward or backward without great force.

The groundskeeper drove me and my bike to the local bike store to see how much it would cost to get this problem fixed. Answer? A whopping $75.
Know how much a new bike costs? One that was pretty much the exact same as the one I have?

If I learned anything from all of this, it's that my kouchou-sensei (principal) and my supervisor are really great. Both of them offered me used bikes that were at the school/Board of Education to use instead of fixing my current bike. But, having strong evidence that used bikes equate to homes for damned spirits, I decided to spend the extra money to get a new bike. It's pretty, shiny, and I actually like its add-ons better than the ones my old bike had, so ... hurray! Although it was a pretty crappy scenario (one of many from this past week, I hate to say), it all turned out well enough in the end that I can smile, laugh, and feel pretty good about it in the end.

In conclusion:

Fixing two flat tires: $35.
Buying a new bike entirely: $95.
Getting a few laughs out of the grounds keeper by saying “this tire is a DEMON!” in Japanese: Priceless.