Sunday, February 19, 2012

Myths of the Japanese Education System Debunked - Part I

Before I ever went to Japan I had heard quite a few things about Japanese students. For one thing I had gotten the impression that they were all amazingly intelligent. Perhaps I had taken what I had heard and run with it, but that was the general impression that I had.

Myth #1: Japanese students are all geniuses

The students in Japan are actually a lot like the ones in the U.S., and probably anywhere else. They are all different. Some are extremely quick, others...not so much. Some students excel in some areas and lag behind in others. Then there are those rare students who excel at everything and quickly. But, just like where I'm from, those are not so easy to find. (To be fair, though, they are actually really into rote memorization.)

And, of course, a student's economic situation also comes into play, unfortunately. The area I teach in isn't exactly rolling in money. It's surprising how many students do not have access to the internet outside of school.

Myth #2: Japanese schools are run by robots

When I first moved here to teach I was under the mistaken impression that, technology-wise at least, the classrooms would be the same as the ones I had been in during my own jaunt in middle school.


Every classroom in the middle schools I go to is equipped with a chalkboard, chalk, a pull-down screen (for a projector, etc.), a small flatscreen TV, and four fans (though not all of the time). However, there is no computer or projector. Each school has it's own projector and electronic blackboard.

When I first began teaching here I was asked to give an involved self introduction. At the orientation in Tokyo for JETs we had been shown examples of really awesome self introductions. All in power point. I was dumbfounded by many of my co-workers' reluctance/lack of knowledge to use something as simple as a projector in the classroom. It's like pulling teeth whenever I want to share a video or something with the kids. It's not even that difficult. All that you really need to do is plug in the right cords, all 3 of them.

One of the teachers actually gives me a lot of leeway when it comes to planning special classes, which I absolutely love. We were scheduled to give a demonstration lesson. On the day of a demonstration lesson the whole school is sent home early except for one class. Then teachers from far and wide come to the school to watch us teach them English. That particular school does this awesome thing where they separate the first- and third-year classes by ability level and are taught at the same time by two different teachers. I made a video for the students to watch and a writing activity to sum it up. The teacher who was in charge of the whole thing was great and let me do my own thing (with guidance). I heard afterwards that the other teacher said he would never use anything like that again because the technology was too much work.

Mental face palm.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

My Mansion

Today I thought I'd talk a little about my apartment.

In Japan an "apartment" is an efficiency, and a "mansion" is a multi-room apartment. Cool, huh? I can now officially say that I live in a mansion!

Anyways, one of the great things about living in a rural area is that the "mansions" cost a lot less than they do in the city. The rent is about US$400 a month, but the Board of Education pays about US$300 of that. And it is the perfect size for one person. The first floor of my building is actually the parking lot. But it also has our mailboxes and the trash collection bin. My mansion is on the second floor. Each floor has 4 mansions.

The entrances, like all Japanese living spaces, are half a step below the rest of the space. That's where you leave your shoes, umbrellas, etc. Once you step up, you are in my kitchen. It's actually pretty roomy. To the right is a toilet room. With just the toilet. And luckily it is a western toilet and not a squat toilet. Unfortunately, I don't have a washlet, so my seat isn't heated. I've been wanting to get one, but they're kind of expensive.... On the left is my washroom (senmenjou) with the sink and washer, which leads into my shower/tub room. I really love the tub (it's so deep) but I rarely have time to use it. Actually, during the evening I can hear my upstairs neighbors emptying their tubs after bath time and I can smell the bath salts they use. Lovely!

My kitchen, like I said, is actually pretty roomy. I have a gas stove with only two burners, and counter space is limited, so I end up using my dining table for cooking. Most Japanese people won't have ovens (Japanese cooking just doesn't call for them, microwaves have oven settings, and they are huge energy guzzlers), but I mentioned once that I miss being able to cook in an oven and one of the Japanese teachers GAVE ME HIS OVEN. So now I have an oven, and I kind of use it a lot.

My kitchen hooks into my living room, which is separated by an accordian wall. This is very convenient for winter and summer when I can contain all of the bought air in the living room where I spend most of my time. My living room has a nice TV (thank you, Board of Education!) which also doubles as my computer screen. I also have a kotatsu, which is an amazing invention. It's basically a low coffee table that has a removable top and a heater attached underneath it. So in the winter you hook up the heater, drape a futon blanket over the table topped with the actual table top and sit under it all day feeling warm and cozy.

And, because of my lack of a dryer, my (narrow) balcony is basically just used for laundry.

Now most of my apartment is either linoleum or hardwood flooring. My bedroom, which is on the corner of the kitchen and living room, is a traditional Japanese room. It has tatami mats and sliding doors. I do have a bed, though I'd prefer to just sleep on a traditional futon since the frame is rather noisy.

One of the bad things about living in Japan is that most houses and apartments (and mansions) aren't built with insulation or central air conditioning/heating. So in the summer it's HOT and in the winter it's COLD. I do have a little wall unit in my living room, but it really adds up on my electric bill, so I try not to use it as often as possible. Lately it's been averaging in the upper 40s, lower 50s in my apartment, so getting in and out of the shower is kind of like torture. But I have a little space heater that I keep in my washroom so that it's not too unbearable.

When I get my apartment cleaned up I'll post picture and videos of what it actually looks like.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

I am indeed a part of your species

One of the things I'm sure I've mentioned from my time of studying abroad is that I, as a foreigner, tend to be stared at. Well, if I thought it was bad in the Tokyo area, I hadn't yet experienced the alienation of the countryside.

Now that I live in a rural town there are EVEN LESS foreigners. In fact, it is quite possible that I am one of only two western foreigners in this entire city. This, of course, has its ups and its downs.

On the down side, people out here are less likely to have seen a foreigner before or are exposed to them very rarely, so they STARE. It doesn't matter what you're doing. You could be grocery shopping, waiting for a bus, walking down the street, picking your nose; you will be stared at. Though, I've noticed that it's somewhat more pronounced at opposite ends of the age spectrum. While I'm walking down the street, older people will be driving by and actually turn their bodies to keep me in sight as they pass, like I'm going to jump out and hitch a ride on the back of their truck. And while children don't drive, they do the next best thing. They'll be running around laughing, they spot me and, oh! They stop dead in their tracks, their faces devoid of expression. I can just hear them thinking, "What the...?" Even babies will stare, as if they already know how I'm different from everyone else.

Now, most days this sort of thing is not much of a bother for me. With the kids all you need to do is smile and wave and they run off. But some days, like this past Friday, it really gets under my skin. I had taken the train so I could get up a little later in the morning, and I was waiting for the bus at the train station. There were only two people in this remote little station: myself and this older woman. I had sat my things down on a bench and was standing listening to my mp3 player and she stood just outside of the glass station doors in front of me staring at me. Blatantly. Annoyingly. At first I thought she might have been checking herself out in the reflection since she kept adjusting the collar of her coat. But then she stepped back to where the door was open and kept on staring.

Sigh. Even staring right back didn't do anything. That made me really cranky.

On the other hand, it is kind of nice to be recognized. As a public school teacher I am often recognized by students and coworkers when we see each other on the train or in the capital city. In addition to face-time at school, if I participate in any of the local community events I end up on cable TV or in the newspaper. Last month I actually made it onto NHK, which is a prefecture-wide channel. It's kind of cool, but at the same time I get random people coming up to me talking to me as if they know me, so I think I've met them before and just don't remember their faces. So I feel really bad until I finally realize that I have never met them, they just saw me on TV. Or out jogging.

A not so good side of being easily recognized, it renders going to the convenience store in your pajama pants out of the question.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Welcome Back

Wow, I can't believe I've been living in Japan for a year and a half already! Let's get in an update, shall we?

I am now an assistant language teacher in Kagawa Prefecture. I am based at my city's Board of Education and I have a very, very busy schedule. Four days I week I assist Japanese teachers of English at one of three junior high schools. I rotate between schools every two to three weeks. On Thursdays, I teach classes at one of ten elementary schools or one of ten kindergartens. Sometimes two. I also teach an hour-long adult English language class on Wednesday evenings. In addition to those duties, I also give lectures, seminars, and arrange English-related community activities.

I live in a city that is really just five country towns going under a united name and government. I happen to live in one of the smaller towns on the coast of the Inland Sea. This, of course, has its good points and its bad points. On the one hand, people are very generous and helpful here, I get to have many experiences I wouldn't have had were I based in a city (such as farming potatoes), the view is better, and my living space is much bigger than it would be for the same price in the city. However, I am more likely to be stared at out here, there is absolutely no shopping in the area, and it's a little difficult to go many places without a car (which I don't have).

The last time I lived in Japan I joined the kendo club at the university I was attending. This time I decided to start taking koto lessons. The koto is a Japanese harp that is about 6 feet long, low built, with 13 strings, and is of Chinese origin. It is often accompanied by the shakuhachi, or the Japanese wooden flute. In addition to, and because of, this I have also learned how to dress myself in kimono and yukata. But I'll go more into that later.

Today, you find me in the middle of winter. And it's COLD. We've actually had snow flurries over the past several days. I really feel bad for the public school students here, though. Unfortunately, the junior high schools do not have central air conditioning/heating, nor do they use heaters. As a result the classrooms are literally freezing. And the students aren't allowed to wear anything over their uniforms (which for the girls is a skirt)! It's almost as equally bad in the hot and humid summer, when they only have oscillating fans in use.

As for travelling, I haven't gotten much in since moving here. I hadn't left Japan until a year and 5 months after arriving. But going home for Christmas and New Years was nice. It was nice to see everybody again and get some new clothes. However I am planning a trip to Thailand during Golden Week (spring break) this year. I am very much looking forward to relaxing on the beach. I am also planning a four-week-long trip to India for spring next year, about which I am extremely excited.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Well, after two years I am returning to the Land of the Rising Sun. But this time I'll be on the other side of the desk. I've been accepted by the JET Program to be an Assistant Language Teacher in Kagawa Prefecture that is located on the island of Shikoku.

As a result I am catching a flight on Saturday out to Tokyo where I will be attending an orientation for a couple of days before flying out to my prefecture.

This time around my primary communication will be through a vlog that I will be posting on YouTube. I will be continuing this vlog, but to get the full experience I highly recommend that you watch this:

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New Direction

Woohoo!!! I'm no longer unemployed!! ^^

Finally, after three months of searching and applying and hearing next to nothing, I've finally managed to secure a job. And I've found that it's amazing how much better I feel about myself and my situation now. As my dad says, nothing makes you appreciate a job more than unemployment.

I am now a Gallery Host at a nearby hotel (and a very nice hotel at that). Basically I am responsible for making/changing/canceling reservations, checking people in and out, greeting people at the door, fielding telephone calls/questions/complaints, giving tours, helping with the continental breakfast, preparing hot meals, and making Starbucks coffees and teas. I'm still training at the moment but I'll be on a regular shift by this upcoming weekend, which is exciting. And this is the first time that I've ever had to wear a uniform other than for band....

And to make things even better, autumn has come to Texas, or at least to Dallas. I love autumn; it's my favorite season in the year. It's just so colorful and moody.

Anyways, from now on I think that the direction I'll be taking in my blog will be focused on my ultimate career goal: creating a school.

Many of those who know me will know of my love of learning languages. And I've come to realize that foreign language education in the Texas public school system sucks. So, for many years now, my career goal has been to open sort of a dual language school. The students would learn everything they would learn in a normal public school (hopefully at a higher standard), but in at least two different languages.

So, from now on that is what the focus of my blogs will be: foreign language education. Welcome to my new beginning.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Leaving School

Wow, it's almost been a year from my last post! That's kind of hard to believe...

Since I got back from Japan, my life has not been all flowers and sunshine, unfortunately. Especially since the start of my last semester at UT. Since last July I've lost several family members. In January, the night before the semester started, my then boyfriend came straight to my apartment from a three day trip with his parents to dump me. I had such a bad physical reaction to the whole ordeal that it left me nauseated for the rest of the week. Needless to say, I had a really hard time getting to sleep the night before the start of classes. Not only that but that same week Calyn's car got broken into TWICE within four days, just sitting outside of our apartment building. And I could not get into the last Japanese class (I thought) I had to take in order to graduate on time.

The next week I started taking medication for an infection that made me nauseated for the rest of the second week of school. And the professor finally added me to his class.

The classes I took last semester were Fundamentals of Acting (which was a blast), Readings in Pre-modern Japanese Stories (a whole bunch of translating), Main Current of American Culture to 1865 (cultural history), and Mexican American Modernism. I also joined the Texas Ballroom club which was so much fun! During the semester, my acting and ballroom classes as well as my roommates and friends were the only things keeping me afloat.

Two weeks after I was dumped my grandmother died; my last grandparent. I was a pallbearer at her funeral that weekend.

During that time my parents also gave me an ultimatum. If I put out five applications a week and made 10 contact in order to secure a job, they would think about letting me stay with them after I graduated. I know my parents were only trying to light a fire beneath my feet so I could have a job lined up, but that on top of classwork and all of the emotional baggage I was carrying around had me drowning.

Thankfully, things were starting to look up near the end of the semester. I was almost done with my classes, due to graduate soon, and my parents had taken back their ultimatum. On the flip side I hadn't found a job yet.

However, everything hit the fan during the last week of classes. I had turned in all of the paperwork for my coursework overseas in November. I was told that it would all get processed by Spring Break, but it didn't. I was told by my academic advisors that I had all of the credits I would need to graduate on time in May. They finally processed all of my credit the Friday before the last week of classes and I was psyched that I could apply to graduate since the deadline for that was the next Friday.

Well, Monday came around and I went up to campus to apply to graduate only to learn that I was missing one hour of upper-division Japanese credit.

one hour

My advisors scrambled around trying to find ways to correct the situation.
They tried having some of the courses re-evaluated, they tried appealing to the Dean to waive the one hour requirement. But by Wednesday nothing had worked and I was really starting to worry. The next day I had three finals, acting at 8:00 AM, a four page translation of a Japanese story due at 9:30 AM, class at 2:00, and an eight page paper due in English at 3:30 that next afternoon. At 5:30 that Wednesday I had halfway finished the translation and I was a page and a half shy on my English paper, when I got a call from my academic advisor.

He told me that if I wanted to graduate on time, my last option was to take an upper-division Japanese final the next day for a class I had not taken at UT. At that point I broke down and called my parents in hysterics. In the end I elected to take the final (which cost $82) and gamble my graduation date on the off-chance that I could pass a final exam whose contents I did not know, nor would I have had the time to study for. The next day, I performed for my acting final and got good comments, ran to the library to finish up the translation for the Japanese class, which made me a bit late. And then I spent my lunch break finishing my English paper before going to class at 2:00, turned in my paper at 3:30 and went straight to the testing site, where I spent 2 hours trying to pass the Japanese final.

The next morning I woke up and found that by some miracle I had made a B on the Japanese final and that I would be able to graduate on time.

So I graduated, and am now back at home in Garland, still trying to find a job.