Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Big 3-Oh

Today was a lazy, rainy Sunday — and my 30th birthday. Woooo-eeee! We enjoyed a low-key celebration at the house, doing some writing and watching movies. Joe made a cake and put every candle left in the cupboard on it. Can't say I'm broken up about bidding my 20s adieu. My 20s were a helluva ride but now it's time to bring on the 30s!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

English education in Japan: If you can't say anything right...

I've been teaching in Japan for three years now, and by and large my classes are a pleasure. In addition to my classes, students have other lessons with Japanese teachers who teach them the grammar and mechanics of the English language. Those teachers are the unlucky ones, teaching the kids all the necessary boring stuff. I'm the lucky one — my classes are the ones where the kids actually get the chance to use what they've learned — to finally speak instead of just listen.

This can be a lot of fun! And... it can also be terribly painful.

Classroom management in Japan was a real adjustment for me. The expectations for student behavior in the classroom are very different from the U.S. and weren't immediately clear to me.

First off, you should know that the standard Japanese class has 40 students. This I'm sure would make American teachers choke on their coffee, given how much noise they make about having even 30 students in a class. All the students are divided up into homeroom classes, and they take nearly every class with the same cohort of kids.

Luckily for me, however, each class is divided in half for English lessons, so I teach only 20 kids at a time. Over the course my time here, I've been tasked with planning lessons ranging anywhere from 35 to 65 minutes.

My very first lessons were kind of a trial by fire where I got a glimpse into the challenges that lay ahead for me as an English teacher. Essentially, I'd been told to give an introduction of myself, showing pictures and explaining (very slowly) where I was from, some personal details, my hobbies, whatever. Then students would have a chance to ask me some questions. Picturing how this kind of lesson would have been received by American students meeting a foreigner from a strange place for the first time, I was fully prepared to field an onslaught of questions from a bunch of bright-eyed curious youngsters.

Except that when the question period came, repeatedly I was greeted with only a bunch of stares. Nobody had questions? Really?!...

Well, no, not really. The kids were full of questions, I have no doubt. But they just didn't know how to ask them. Or they were too afraid to ask them.

You know that old adage "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all"? For the Japanese, the philosophy goes more like, "If you can't say anything right, don't say anything at all." The problem is the students know their English isn't perfect, and rather than speak up and make a mistake, they'd rather remain silent.

They're also simply not used to speaking up in class at all. I remember one time I was reviewing the names of places on a map before doing an activity on giving directions. I pointed to the park on a map and asked them the English word for it. Silence. Four years of English education under their belts and no one can manage to say the word "park"? Come on! Sometimes this can be really frustrating.

I can think of no better example of this phenomenon than the recitation assignment all my sophomores were given last year. They were made to memorize a passage from their textbook and recite it in front of class. These recitations took one to two minutes. This was a challenging task for the kids, as I'm sure you can understand. It probably would have been hard enough to do this kind of public speaking task in Japanese, let alone English.

So a lot of kids got up in front of class, began doing their thing and inevitably hit a point where they had a hard time remembering the next line. They'd stand there nervously, eyes squeezed shut, biting their lip, desperately trying to will the words into their memory. I felt bad for them.

The thing is, I know that if American kids had to do an assignment like this, it would be only a matter of time before some clown, recognizing the futility of recalling the words, would just start making stuff up. He'd say something ridiculous, the entire class would laugh, everyone would relax a bit and remind themselves of the absurdity of the task.

Three hundred and twenty Japanese students gave me their recitations. Lots of kids hit a point where they just couldn't remember it anymore, and stood there silently for the next minute and a half until their time was up. Not one attempted to ham it up. No one winged it and tried to just make something up that sort of half-resembled the actual script. I wonder if the thought even occurred to them. Honestly, after listening to days of endless droning about Charlie Brown buttering toast, I would have happily handed a high score to any kid who deviated even slightly from the script in the name of a laugh.

But it went down the way it did because in the Japanese mind, it's better to say nothing than to say the wrong thing. It's better to have forgotten the script than to give the appearance of not knowing it, or of having memorized the wrong thing.

In this way, I have to admire my Japanese students. They are so earnest, so dedicated. They take their studies seriously. A lot of American students could stand to take a cue from them.

At the same time, it's this drive for perfection that also holds them back. I always tell my students, "Don't be afraid to make mistakes!" Nobody expects them to be perfect — except themselves! Getting them to overcome this fear is my biggest challenge as a teacher.

Part of the problem is that the Japanese school system enables this reluctance to take risks. You might think, "Oh, no problem, kids won't volunteer to answer questions in class? Then just pick someone to do it." But it's not that easy. In Japan, if a student isn't sure of an answer, there is no expectation that he'll try to answer anyway. He can simply deflect the question by saying "Pass". A lot of them don't even do that, though. I will pick certain students to answer something, and they will simply not respond at all. They will just sit there, silent. I didn't understand this was how it works when I first started teaching. A Japanese teacher would have recognized that a student didn't know the answer and simply moved on. But I just stood there, waiting for an answer. Waiting for some kind of recognition that I even just spoke to them. There'd be a terrible awkward silence where they'd stare down at their desk and I'd wonder if they were just trying to think of the answer or what. When they said nothing, inside I was very irritated. Their silence seemed terribly insubordinate. This wouldn't be tolerated in America.

Once I understood the cultural difference, I stopped being upset by this behavior. But it does sometimes present a challenge teaching the type of interactive lessons I'm tasked with doing, where students are expected to speak, listen, understand and respond.

My school doesn't allow teachers to give out candy as incentives. Instead, I followed in the footsteps of my predecessor and award the kids stamps each time they speak in class, whether they say the right thing or not. Students know that the participation stamps they accumulate during the semester factor into their final grade. Initially the problem with this was that the head English teacher wouldn't tell me, much less the students, exactly how the stamps would be factored into their final grade. It seemed like they didn't want to place a value on the participation stamps until the end of the semester when they could see how all the kids' grades were shaping up. Consequently, the motivating power of the stamps was severely diminished. (Well, it's that and the fact that grades just don't matter as much here. Kids know that as long as they score well on their college entrance exams, mediocre grades won't hurt them.)

Since I couldn't entice my students with candy, and it didn't work so well making vague promises about the participation points boosting their grade, I turned to all-out bribery. When Joe and I visited home last year, I returned with a bag stuffed full of little souvenirs — pennies, postage stamps, English pins with edgy messages, buckeyes, miniature American flags, Obama campaign stickers, and the mother lode — Obama campaign buttons I ordered from Democratic Stuff, a company in Greenville, Ohio, that produces campaign products. I showed the stuff to the students and told them that the five students from each class with the most participation points at the end of the semester could choose a prize. When I gave those prizes out, the kids went absolutely bonkers over the Obama buttons. Finally I'd found a successful motivator! A lot of them may not care about learning English, but they care about winning some Obama memorabilia.

I suppose if I did that in the U.S. that'd make me a "Socialist!", but here it just makes me popular.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Hell hath no fury like a Japanese baseball coach

I remember when Joe and I were finally notified of the names of our schools before we moved to Japan. I excitedly typed my school's name into Google and found its website. Of course the site was all in Japanese, so I hit the Google translation button to get an idea of what it said. The translation function does a supremely lousy job of translating things, but you can still get a sense of what is said. Well, the translated version of the page described my school as a "military preparatory school" (it's not). We got a good laugh out of that when Joe remarked, "You're going to be barking at those Japanese kids to drop and give you 20!" Turns out, there was a grain of truth to that. Though it's not me ordering the push-ups — it's one of the other teachers.

Discipline in Japanese schools is a lot different from the U.S. On the surface there appears to be a lot less discipline in the classroom, and teachers tolerate more misbehavior than in American schools. This really surprised me when I started teaching here.

The thing is, the Japanese are very non-confrontational people. Often, teachers' approach is to simply ignore what little misbehavior goes on. Lucky for me, most of my students are very well behaved. Being at a relatively high academic high school, these kids are serious about their studies and feel motivated to learn. There's a famous saying in Japan: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." Social pressure keeps kids in line pretty well, and if they do get out of line their peers will bully them into submission. This makes for a class of kids trying very hard to conform rather than cause a disruption and call attention to themselves.

Most of the time students' indiscretions amount to ignoring the teacher and talking in class — they're no different from American teenagers in that way. Pretty minor stuff. I've had to deal with students typing English obscenities into their electronic translators and hitting the button to make the device say it out loud in class, and I've had to put up with obnoxious baseball players who want to bully the class into non-participation to cover up their deficiencies. Irritating, yes, but these situations are the exception, not the rule.

That's not the case in other lower academic schools, though. I have heard horror stories from other JETs about students pulling out cell phones and making calls in class, standing up and simply walking out the door in the middle of a lesson, and even one girl going so far as to plug in a curling iron to fix her hair during class (apparently right after P.E. period). Sometimes all the kids talk and simply ignore the teacher, who pretends it's not happening and just goes on with the futile lesson anyway.

In America, this sort of stuff would get you sent to the principal's office, or at least earn you a detention. But it seems that often times these behaviors are ignored in Japan. Kids are not kicked out of class. I have never heard of anyone being sent to the principal's office. High school is not compulsory, and until just recently, students actually had to pay tuition — around $100 a month — to attend public high school, so perhaps educators felt they couldn't really bounce a kid from class?

This is not to say there are no disciplinary measures. There are. There are a couple teachers who share the honor of being the official disciplinarians at my school. If a student acts up and ticks off his teacher, the teacher sends him to the disciplinarian during lunch or after school for a good dressing down. And this is where the disciplinary approach diverges wildly from America.

Instead of getting sent to the principal's office, naughty Japanese students at my school get sent to the baseball coach. Now I know I said before that the Japanese are very non-confrontational people. So when students are confronted, when they are actually yelled at, it sends a strong message — You really effed up, kid. It's embarrassing. And that's exactly what this teacher does.

He yells. I mean, he doesn't just lecture kind of angrily, he really lets him have it. The offender — usually a boy, I don't know if I can recall ever seeing a girl get into trouble — stands mute while the teacher works himself up into a screaming, red-faced fury. Either the boy wears an expression of defiant indifference, which only seems to prompt louder yelling, or he looks crestfallen as he tries to choke back tears. Sometimes, they do cry. While this teacher is going ballistic, all the other teachers in the office stare straight ahead, hunched over their keyboards as though nothing is happening. At times this teacher has thrown chairs. One time he even swept a heavy radio off the desk and it went crashing to the floor, though I'm not exactly sure if that was intentional considering that's kind of an expensive thing. It scared the bejesus out of me though because my desk was right in front of his at the time. And yes, there have even been times when I've seen him order kids to the floor to do push ups. I think those might have been his baseball players.

I was shocked the first time I saw this episode unfold. I had never seen any teacher act that way before, and I really didn't know what to think. He was throwing chairs and raving, and everyone else was just going about their normal business. I thought about telling him to calm down a bit, but I was scared to interfere. I always feel so bad for the students who endure this treatment. It makes me want to do something to defuse the situation and comfort them a bit, like covertly sneak a piece of chocolate into their palm as they leave the office or something. But I don't. One time I took pity and handed a box of tissues to a poor boy who was sobbing and wiping his eyes repeatedly on his shirt sleeve. I feel that's about all I can do.

After the dressing down is complete, the boys leave the office and I look at the teacher quizzically. The angry expression usually lifts from his face and he chuckles a bit. It's not that he gets a kick out of publicly humiliating students, but he seems a shade embarrassed about the crazy scene he just made. Because usually he's really not angry. He just pretends to be. And he is a very convincing actor.

Sometimes I ask what the kids did to earn this punishment. One kid got in trouble for repeatedly skipping school. Another kid cut class and hid in the bathroom to avoid taking a test. And one boy caught it for not telling the baseball coach he'd earned some failing grades, even though they'd been told they had to report any under-performance to the coach. Of course the coach knew about the bad grades, but the kid was being punished for being too scared to own up to his mistakes and face the consequences.

I have conflicting feelings about this "tough love" method of discipline. On one hand, I feel like heaping abuse on students and being physically threatening is really inappropriate. This is the very reason American schools no longer paddle rule-breakers, isn't it? Do we want them emulating that disciplinarian's behavior someday, perhaps on their own kids? Do we want to send the message that they somehow deserve less respect than us? On the other hand, well... It seems to work. The kids behave. I mean, I think my kids are just good kids in the first place, but still, American detention doesn't sound nearly as horrible as the public shaming these kids get. It seems like a good deterrent. I guess it's not so far off from the old debate of whether "time outs" are preferable to simply spanking a kid. The Japanese kids aren't being physically beaten, but they are being humiliated almost in the same manner as spanking. And the result is that I never see the kind of contempt and defiance I have witnessed American students throw at their teachers. There is a respect for authority that is sometimes absent in America. Makes you wonder if the Japanese could teach us a thing or two.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How much for that doggy in the window?

How can you resist a face like this?

Look at those round black eyes. That button nose. That soft snow white fur.

Japanese people see this and go ga-ga. Hypnotized by cuteness, they open their wallets, turn them upside down and shake. Money blows away.

So it goes when it comes to pets in Japan. Japan is world famous for its culture of cuteness, and Lord knows there's nothing cuter than puppies.

Take me home with yooooou!

Pet stores here are filled with purebred animals fetching top dollar. I simply could not believe it the first time I went in to a Japanese pet store and saw that all the animals cost several hundred dollars, and many well over $1,000.

Even the cats!

For a while I had a sort of obsession with an orange flat-faced Exotic cat I dubbed "Smooshy." Smooshy's price tag was 98,000 yen — $980 or so. Every time I went to the Fuji Grand department store, I'd stop in to pay Smooshy a visit. I swear that cat was there for three months. Cooped up in that cage all that time. I always wondered when there'd be a Smooshy sale, since obviously no one wanted to pay so much for that cat. But there was never a Smooshy sale, and then one day Smooshy was gone. I wondered if someone finally adopted her or if she fell victim to a darker fate.

I read a Reuters article a while back about how Japanese people usually don't adopt animals from pet shelters. There's a very strong "brand name" mentality here where people really don't tend to buy generic or used goods, and I think that extends to animals as well. Who wants to save some throw-away mutt when you can have a purebred one from the pet shop? That makes me sad.

Japan has had a declining birthrate for years, which is one of the country's major social dilemmas. It seems that rather than have children a lot of people just adopt dogs instead. This Japan Times article says that since 2003, there have been more pets than children under age 16 in Japan. Last year there were 6 million more pets than children.

People really do treat the dogs like children, too. Japanese pet stores have an unbelievable selection of dog outfits, and it seems like nearly every dog I see out for a walk is wearing a shirt. Given the importance the Japanese place on fashion and personal appearance, perhaps this isn't too surprising.

I mean check out some of these outfits:

Every dog's gotta have a little black dress!

Yes, it's a yukata! For a dog!

Obligatory Engrish T-shirt


For some I think the dogs become just an accessory as part of their overall fashion statement.

There are even special cakes, muffins, and other sweets for these pooches.

Granted, Americans have been known to overindulge their pets, too. No doubt. When I worked for the newspaper I actually featured a lady who opened up a pet spa offering pet massage. You could get your dog groomed there using special fancy pants aroma therapy shampoos. Another lady I interviewed started her own homemade gourmet dog biscuit shop. So it's not just the Japanese. But, I do think that as a whole, Japanese pets are a lot more spoiled.

But I guess when you're paying that much for a pup, you're gonna treat it like royalty.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A walk around Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Museum

Watched stopped at 8:15 a.m. — the moment the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima.

Last week my sister-in-law Jenny and her friend came to visit us, so we took them around to all the big tourist sites. Of course they couldn't come to Hiroshima without visiting the Peace Memorial Museum, and though I've seen it before, I've never blogged about it, so I decided to go with them and shoot a few pictures.

The museum is a fascinating but depressing place filled with information about World War II history, the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and artifacts from the bomb's aftermath.

There are a few dioramas depicting the city before and after the bomb, including this one showing where the bomb exploded, decimating the entire landscape. Only a few skeletal buildings remained.

One of those was the Atomic Bomb Dome, almost directly beneath the blast, pictured here at center. At the time, it was a government building. Today it remains as a memorial to the bomb.

The bomb obliterated pretty much everything within a two-mile radius. Joe and I live about 4.7 miles from the hypocenter of the bomb (as the crow flies), far enough away that the buildings in our neighborhood wouldn't have been destroyed, though our area was hit with black rain. Actually, I'm not sure how developed our part of the city was at that time, since the museum stated that 90 percent of the city's buildings were destroyed or burned beyond repair.

To me, the most unforgettable parts of the museum are the second-floor exhibits illustrating the destruction. There are lots of pictures and stories about victims and their personal belongings — school children's tattered uniforms and things like that. Some of these things are truly heartwrenching to see. One of the more famous items is this:

A 3-year-old boy was riding this tricycle in front of his house when the bomb hit. He was badly burned and died that night. His father, feeling his son was too young to be buried in a lonely grave away from home, and thinking he could still play with the tricycle, buried his son with the tricycle in his backyard. Forty years later, he dug up the boy's remains to transfer them to the family grave, and donated the tricycle to the museum.

Perhaps the most stomach-turning exhibit confronts visitors as they round the corner into a new room. Inside an exhibit showing the aftermath of the bomb, we see wax figures of victims holding out their arms, skin melting off. This is a common image I've heard recounted many times by survivors of the bomb and in books. I remember one hibakusha (bomb survivor) explaining how she witnessed lines of burned victims shuffling down the street, holding out their arms like zombies, begging for water.

The bomb's fury sent shards of glass flying through the air with such force that they embedded in concrete.

The heat warped steel and melted glass.

One surprise I encountered in the museum when I went through last November with Diane and Paul was an actual mention of Springfield, Ohio, believe it or not. There is a section about a project started in September 2007 to display an atomic bomb exhibition in 101 U.S. cities, and one of them is Springfield. I imagine this was connected in some way to Wittenberg University since it has such a great East Asian Studies program.

There are all sorts of books out there if you are interested in learning more about the bombing. I'm not the type of person to read a pile of history books, but actually one of the books I can recommend for those interested in learning more about the bombing is a 10-volume graphic novel called Barefoot Gen: The Cartoon Story of Hiroshima. It was written by Keiji Nakazawa, a bomb survivor. I'm definitely no expert on writing book reviews, but I just wrote one for the Wide Island View. Actually it's not so much a review as just a piece urging people to check these books out. And you should — they're incredible.