Friday, May 19, 2006

when we're in Kobe for the recontracting conference it'll be 10 months since our arrival in Tokyo. what a trip!

a writer for UWM's Edline asked me a few questions for an upcoming article. Here are the answers i wrote. They could have all been different. I have been contimplating over them for a couple of weeks. At first, it was hard to sit down and write, to find the words, to decide on the "right" answer. I tried to answer as honestly as possible for the given moment. it was probably different 5 months ago and it'll be different 5 months from now.

but while i'm away enjoying myself on the mainland, here is something to read.

What are your plans for after you leave Okinawa?
I have been constructing all sorts of travel schemes in my mind. Most of them take me from northern Japan through Russia and Central Asia into Eastern Europe and then home. But if you meant in terms of jobs, I am not certain. It’s looking like teaching is something I enjoy doing, even when it’s not in my own language, so perhaps I shall continue on that path.

If you will be teaching, where and what grade level?
Wherever I settle, I know it will be a city, either the size of Milwaukee or larger. I like being surrounded by options for entertainment. When I was leaving Milwaukee last year, I was starting to like it quite a bit, so perhaps going back there initially might be a good idea, especially since my family would appreciate being closer to me after such a long absence. I would prefer to teach high school but I have been enjoying working with middle school kids in Japan, so I won’t automatically turn down a job in middle school.

What is the most important thing you learned from your experience teaching in a different culture?
It’s difficult to quantify the learning that has taken place in the last ten months, and that is yet to come in the next 14 months. I think I learned that it’s important to acknowledge the differences within a new culture without judging them too harshly. I also realized that I may never understand the reasons for these differences, but should conduct myself as much as possible within the boundaries of the culture. It’s important to be reflective when living in a new culture. I found it easier to deal with “culture shock” by writing about my daily life on the net and in a personal journal. Thinking through writing helps bring out my frustrations but also my understanding of the culture. It’s also important to create a comfortable and personal place within the new surroundings. Because I am here for a limited time, I don’t feel the need to assimilate within the culture, so it’s important to have a place where I can be myself and act in a way that is normal and natural to me. And the most important thing I have learned is that smiling goes a long way. It’s the best way to dispel discomfort and to establish communication. Being open to and smiling through new experiences is the best policy while living in a different culture.

How will you bring your experiences into your future classrooms?
I hope that at some point I will have the freedom to teach high school students about Asian cultures and religions. They are very unique and unlike anything in the West; I believe students would greatly benefit from learning about different perspectives that coexist within Asian cultures. It would be great to show students how similar their counterparts are in Japan, but also how different and why. I would also like to teach students Japanese expressions and ways of behavior in the classroom. I think it’s important for teachers to show students the diversity that exists in our world and to encourage them to evaluate and think critically about those similarities and differences.

What is most different about teaching in Okinawa?
When compared to my teaching experience in MPS, I would have to say that most things are different. The schedule is flexible—classes are cut, skipped, lengthened and shortened depending on the needs of extra-curricular activities and teacher meetings. Sports and other clubs are an integral part of the school life and sometimes it seems that they take precedent over academics. Every student is required to participate in a sport or a club until the middle of their 9th grade, when the focus shifts to high school entrance exams and students are expected to study the entire time. I work in a small junior high school of a village. My students are respectful, motivated (most of the time), eager to learn, and good natured. The school structure here supports communal behavior and students are always working together on projects. Group relations are extremely important in Japanese society, and the skills for group communication and success are honed in school. Individuality, as it is exists in the United States does not appear here. Students are responsible for one another, they are competitive but they will also help each other. A student does not make a decision of their own when the group is involved; all decisions are discussed and agreed upon, whether through unanimous vote or a game of “rock, paper, scissors.” Students are responsible for their school: there are no janitors; students clean the school, tidy gardens, etc. Students also set up for lunch themselves after it is delivered, freshly made and healthy.
Teachers are responsible for students’ actions, academic achievement, and behavior in and outside of school. Because students spend some much time in school, doing homework and participating in sports, teachers become the first point of contact for any wrong doing, accident, or inquiry regarding a student.
I could go on and on. The differences are vast.
But I think the one difference that I am constantly aware of is how much students enjoy being at school. In America, it seems that schools are a punishment to the kids. Students can’t wait to get out—same goes for the teachers. Here, students spend more time at school than at home. Their primary social network is here, so are their surrogate parents who care for them. School equals friends, fun, sports, clubs, play, and of course, academics. Come long summer break and most of the students will be at school in the mornings, practicing sports, studying, or getting ready for major school events.

What is most similar to American classrooms?
The relationship between a teacher’s ability and enjoyment of subject directly correlates to students’ ability and enjoyment of subject. I work with a teacher who doesn’t seem to have changed the way he conducts his classroom in 15 years of work. He lacks enthusiasm for English and it shows and students are very quick to pick up on it. I don’t believe he is at all concerned with how much students have actually learned before he moves on to the next subject. I met teachers in MPS who were there only to get through the day and get their summer vacations. Teachers like that create apathetic and unmotivated students. It’s not different in Japan.

Would you teach abroad again? Would you teach in a different place?
At this point, I can’t say for sure. A part of me would like to experience other countries and cultures first hand, but I that feel after I finish on JET my primary reasons for moving abroad will have been fulfilled, so it won’t be necessary to move again. And then again…

What is the most rewarding result of your experience?
Knowing that I can do it. I can live abroad, on my own, surrounded by a vastly different culture, language, people. I can teach. I can motivate. I can cause laughter in students and push them to success. I can be innovative and creative. It’s very rewarding to know all these things, and also to know that I get to learn something new every day, if I wish. Meeting, and getting to know, and becoming friends with exceptional people has also been a great plus.

What is the most frustrating or the biggest challenge for you?
Working within a school system that does not encourage critical thinking or student centered learning. Working with a teacher who is unwilling or unable to change for the better.
And the Okinawan drivers! Talk about frustration! It’s called “right of way” people!!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

was looking at photos in Tanya's album. and loved the shot of a little girl staring at the gorgeous and perfect soap bubbles floating by. in her eyes there is confusion and fascination. it's a beautiful photograph that perfectly captures this moment in childhood. those magical and colorful spheres that are so easily destroyed and just as easily recreated. made me think of all those things that were simple and easy about childhood, and how much i miss it.
what did you use to blow your first ever soap bubbles? we used dandelion stems. If they're thick enough, one can cut an end into quarters and then dip it into a dish filled with water and washing detergent and blow through the other end. take off the flower part before attempting this, of course. and then of course we had the standard stick with a hoop from a bottle with premade soapy solution. but the dandelions stick in the mind.
the mother in the photos is not even blowing the bubbles. they're coming out of a mechanized apparatus that produces perfect bubbles at a set speed. it's fantastic. who cares that it's gone beyond simplicity and is now perhaps lacking a sense of quaintness because it's not a dandelion stem. the eyes of the child are still filled with wander. that's all that matters.

oh to be random on a friday.

wednesday the students sat through prefectural tests on math, japanese and english. i looked through the english tests and realized that i was not wrong about my assumptions. there is a lack of communication between the bigwigs at the ministry and what they want accomplished, and what is actually hapenning in the schools. big surprise there, eh? the questions were well beyond what the students are doing in the class. some, of corse they should have easily answered, we went over quite a few of the material. but the dismal number of students that were able to comlete a simple sentence for the test was dissapointing. so we need to work on writing, even though the ministry is now pushing for speaking.
i think the major problem in junior high school is the speed with which the material is thrusts upon students and the sheer lack of necessity for it. they'll have three more years of English in high school and they again won't have a choice on the matter. so why does a 3rd grader in junior high need to learn passive voice? and why is that followed with rapid succesion with uses of "that" "which" "whose" when they can't even tell me that "i'm going to play basketball this weekend".

i learned a new word today. very proud of myself. dainijisekaitaisen. long, right?
that stands for World War II. i was asking how long Mother's Day has been arond in Japan. and we figured, probably started after WWII. and i can say that too.
hahanohi wa tabun dainijisekaitaisen ata hajimarimashita.

we saw "The Sentinel" on base this week. what a terrible terrible movie. apparently the KGB made contracts 20 years ago to kill the US president when the person who the contract was made with was in the position to do it. what? and it's never explained why would the KGB want that. and we couldn't figure out the accent of the actor playing the main KGB guy. it swung from aussie, to proper british, to irish. and his henchmen didn't even speak russian the few times they spoke. i think it was Polish actually. so so bad. and that's just one detail in a string of details we laughed about when leaving the theater. at least we were entertained and only paid 4$ for it.

karate practice this week was brutal but good. the humidity shot up a couple of dozen percent this week. it's now as hot at night as it is during the day. so karate practice is now a sauna. and it's amazing how much less the okinawans sweat compared to us, westerners. We are learning new katas every week. It took the three of us two months to learn three katas, and in the last month we have started learning four. A very rapid pase and by the end of the session yesterday my brain was no longer following what my body was supposed to be doing.
did i ever mention that carrying a small towel around is absolutely essential and is actually perfectly acceptable and even somewhat fashionable? the days on Okinawa are becoming more humid and it is now necessary to abide by the Hitchiker's essential dogma of always knowing where one's towel is.

i made a new bulletin board. this month we are learning how to greet in English, and to be fare to other users of English, i've included, "How do you do?" and "G'day"
not that any of the kids are going to glance at it. this month our featured English speaking person is Natalie Portman because i really liked her in V for Vendetta and she's in some Japanese commercials, or so i hear, since i don't own a TV. did you know that Natalie was born in Israel, speaks fluent Hebrew, graduated from Harvard, shares the same birthday with Johnny Depp (a fact not to be overlooked), and Portman is actually not her real last name? a very interesting personality and stands out so wonderfully from the typical crowd of 20 somethings in Hollywood. Doesn't live in LA apparently either; has a flat in SoHo.
and if you've never seen Leon, known in United States as The Professional , please treat yourself to a viewing. it's Natalie's breakthrough role, Jean Reno is fantastic, and Gary Oldman is ever graceful in his role as an eccentric bad guy. Directed by Luc Besson, the director of The Fifth Element another great movie, that i watched again while on Tokashiki. Doesn't get old and is still funny.

in slightly dissapointing news--i didn't get picked to be an assistant at the Tokyo Orientation in August. blah.
but am excited for the re-contracting conference at the end of May in Kobe. booked a dorm room in Kyoto for four nights. really looking forward to seeing a tiny bit of mainland Japan.

a few posts back, i ranted about the destruction of Babylon. If anyone's at all interested, the BBC radio is doing a program about the site of Babylon, its history and current condition. I listened to the first part this morning before school and would recommend it. It's called Battle for Babylon

and the weekend plans include a drive to Chatan for a Turkish dinner prepared by Reyhan. I will be providing the turkish coffee making skills.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

in the sun

today is The National Holiday. seriously. That's what it's called in the JET calendar. Yesterday was the Constitution memorial day and tomorrow is Children's Day. Three holidays in a row--Golden Week. Actually there is another holiday the preceeds this on April 29th and it's called Green Day. Not because of any environmental reasons. It's actually because the emperor before the current one used to like the color green and his birthday was celebrated on April 29th. but now that he is no longer the emperor his birthday is the national holiday and celebrates his favorite color. nice, eh?

so the japanese are on vacation. they are traveling and i have joined in the fun. am now on Tokashiki island and enjoying the relaxing sun filled days. It rained non-stop monday and tuesday so i was really afraid of a rained out vacation, but the Japanese weather service has been right all along, and it's warm, sunny, with a cooling wind.

on the fun irreverent side of things. this past weekend had a wonderful time discovering new places to party in Naha. went to a live music bar where the band plays covers of japanese and western songs from 50's onwards. people get up and get down. was a fun time, and all the band members are actually employees of the establishment and serve the customers between sets. ate at a wonderful thai restaurant whose outside decor has peeked my curiousity for 8 months now and the inside was 10x better. beautiful place with reasonably priced delicious thai food.
also enjoyed some karaoke and at both places we went found TATU songs to sing in Russian. that was great fun. yes, i know and like TATU songs from their first album in Russian. and it was really strange seeing cyrillic letters on a karaoke screen with a nonsensical video playing behind it.

am tired now. might have been in the sun too long today.