Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Time Zones and School Zones: Two Worlds Apart

It's Elementary

First grade was a stepping stone of new policies, teachers, parents and friends. Though some aspects of a fresh milestone produce excitement, not all of those stones were a shot out of a picturesque scene from the serene rock gardens of Kyoto. It took me at least two terms to pull back on comparing my own experiences of elementary school as a student, my experiences in US schools as a teacher, or even my early years in Japan on the "other side of the desk" as an English instructor. The number of unscripted, behind-the-scenes of life as an elementary school student here that my former roles couldn't provide so much as stand-ins for, are countless. I have found the hands-on-hard way that I am my own one-man stunt woman here, facing the "rocky" roads without a helmet.

Elementary school entrance ceremony: parents, students and teachers (perhaps I need to clarify that we are in the back, right hand side, and she is the 2nd row, left of center).
Walking Groups: The road less traveled by, the Japanese way

America springs ahead, falls back.  Although Japan doesn't move their clocks back during the school year, I have gone back in time.  I don't mean to say the system of education is out of date, but a little closer to the feeling of the age old joke, "in my day, we walked to school, up hill, both ways!"

We happen to live close to school here, yet thousands of miles from the yellow school bus, the car pool, the lift from Mom and Dad, or what I call the "American school zone" of transportation. Now I live in yellow hat territory. Rain or 100F degree-heat shine, typhoon or blizzard, it's a "walking group zone."  No wheeled transportation of any kind, any day -- buses, cars, bikes, scooters or skates, would be a pipe dream (the American dream?) reserved for lazy, wicked people.

A few of the parents on our block growing up divided the driving, while kids who lived a little farther out took the school bus. I remember singing songs on the way in our carpool, to the point where Mr. B told us not to talk or sing because it steamed up the windows.  It should be noted that his kids were and are musical or athletic proteges, and I picked up on that by age 8 (my deductive reasoning skills were accelerated on that thanks to the constant hum coming from their dual baby grand pianos). Fast forward thirty-some years, and now as a mom I realize that the parents were genius too, since I totally bought his theory and closed my mouth "for visibility's sake."  Fair enough, by upper elementary, I spent those quiet 5 minutes down Ritamarie Drive as the only time I devoted to cram for spelling tests.

In Japan, elementary school students walk to school in all cases, year round. City hall assigns them to the closest public school from their homes. Each kid is designated a starting point to meet their school walking group, comprised of 5-7 students, with the oldest kid leading the single line. The second oldest kid brings up the tail, and the younger tots are sandwiched in the protective cocoon by descending age from either end, not by height, as this is a hierarchy based (senpai culture): 6th grader, 4th grader, 1st grader, 2nd* grader (*ours), and 5th grader. They meet at 7:40 am, file in step and march off to school in their pack, and finally do the reverse at the end of the day on the way home, at an undisclosed time which is not the same every, or any, day.

The walking group, lined up in their age based bell curve of protection.
If for some reason you are going to be late, require an early dismissal or have a pre-arranged absence from school, policy dictates that you must contact that walking group leader to let them know in the form of hand delivered written notification, that you are not coming. To inform the school, there is a half sheet of paper that must be delivered to the teacher by the parent, also by hand. That means if your child is sick, you have to go that morning to the school to hand in the form. A phone call is never sufficient. I imagine this policy reduces absences greatly, unless the parents believe that their child's morning sniffle trumps their shot at a second cup of coffee.  But again, I am thinking from the culture of lazy, wicked parenting. (Disclaimer: I love you Mom.)

On rainy days, students carry their uniform yellow umbrella, and only then can they wear rain boots, but other than in a heavy storm deemed tropical rain front or typhoon, they must walk to school in tennis shoes that would be appropriate for gym class. Don't try slipping anything fancy in there like light up shoes, glow in the dark laces, character or logo laden anything, and don't dare close your eyes and dream about wheelies, noise makers, or anything else sneaky enough to distract children from the concentrated task of putting one foot in front of the other to reach school. After all, they are in the business of reciting their multiplication tables aloud, not whistling as they walk.

Roster for 7 of the walking groups in our neighbourhood -- color-coded ribbons hanging from backpacks designates your starting point, for further ID reinforcement.

Emergency Messaging from the Principal: Not your morning talk show

Tuning into the Ohio news, we'd learn of a chance of snow and go to bed dreaming of a snow day, or at least a delay. At the crack of dawn, I'd put my alarm clock-radio on, and just pray to the DJs to call off UA schools, often in the race for the last in the city to call off.

In extreme weather, in the case of tweaking the timing of the eye of the typhoon or during a heavy snow, we've been messaged via the emergency text system (which sends texts from the school to all parents, grades 1-6; there is a separate emergency phone chain for each class), that the walking groups would start an hour late.

In winter, they can't wear boots, as such footwear is only permitted in heavy rain, they can't wear any hat other than their yellow uniform cap, and no hoods that would cover up the regulated yellow. No scarves (I guess at this point in the rigid rule regimen, they could harm themselves), but neck warmers are okay, only for the walk to school but must be removed upon entering the building. Leg warmers are never okay, though I admit I could have used that warning in 1980. We did receive a text the day after a heavy snow to send our child to school in gloves, not mittens, yet this was not to encourage touching or throwing snow, just for added protection if they slid on the ice.

Obedient march to school in snow: no added hats, scarves, or  frivolous leg warmers.

It didn't take too many evening news headlines featuring kids dropping on playgrounds due to heat exhaustion or heat stroke to initiate a text regarding a hydration policy.  In extreme heat, it is acceptable for students to carry a thermos as long as the contents comply with the rules: iced barely tea, green tea, or water. No juice, milk, sweetened tea, sports drink or pop. (I looked over my shoulder to type that last one just now -- not just the forbidden drink -- it doubles as a bad word.)

Approved gear for the walk to school in extreme heat - thermos with strap, which complies with freeing the arms for a safe walk to school.  No drinking en route - they keep it at school for  designated, supervised drink breaks.

Only once was class-specific emergency phone chain activated, and boy, when the Mother on the list before me introduced herself as, "calling in the chain," my heart skipped a beat.  You don't live on an active earthquake plate without jumping to disaster, but the 9-1-1 was regarding the math homework for that evening.  Skill drill #13 was assigned, when it was intended to be #12, so cancel the homework before the kid gets overwhelmed by approaching new material that hasn't been covered in class.  And please call the next number on the list before that kid damages his psyche and starts sharpening pencils, or worse, goes for that lethal, unapproved scarf on your coatrack.  The final call goes back to the teacher to ensure all were contacted, and tragedy abated.

Notice we're not even to the school gate yet?

When the students arrive at school, they check their outdoor shoes and uniform umbrellas at the main entrance (a second umbrella is stored on their class veranda for sudden rains not predicted by the morning weather forecast on any given day), then head to their classrooms. They have all their gear for the day on them. There are no lockers or closets at school. Each student has a desk drawer equipped with a blue, A4-sized box that they keep supplies in, and a cubby in the back of the class to stow their larger gear: science set, math kit, gym uniform, paint set, calligraphy case, musical instruments.  They store the gear that they will use for the day at school, and it comes home nightly -- pencils to sharpen, supplies such as glue, tape, scissors and erasers requiring inventory checks for quantity and quality and potential replacement.  On any given weekday she totes more gear to school than I check in on Delta Airlines annually.

Not an off to the airport look, just any given school day.
Patrol Duty: A different take on the Fashion Police

I was on patrol duty in elementary school.  I was on outdoor assignment, and wore the Miss America style sash/belt in neon orange, held a 3 ft wooden stick with a STOP flag on the end, and was usually stuck with the corner of Reed Road spot, a full block from school. It was a cool thing to do, especially the day I stood in costume on Halloween.  I was a bag of jelly beans. I wore a clear trash bag filled with balloons, and though Miss America might have been a better costume choice, I did generate a lot of honks. None of the scene described above would be so much as caught on a movie set if the locale was in Japan.

Here, parents, not students, rotate patrol duty, and by parents, I mean Mothers.  We attend a bi-annual assembly, complete with detailed maps, instruction manual, formal schedule and even a demonstration.  You won't find it on Youtube, so I'll paint the picture as best I can based on raw experience.

The day before my scheduled morning (set to start at 7:30 am until the last walking group passes, followed up by a uniformed security guard to give the all-clear, usually around 7:55 am), the previous Mother on the grid, which is mapped out 8 months in advance, delivers "the tote," by 8:05 am, without fail.  The tote is a bright yellow bag, filled with the manual, street map to scale, schedule, rules, dress code, rain poncho, neon vest and flag.  The flag is just what you picture from the stand up comedian's stereotyped joke starring a Japanese tour guide leading a group around an overcrowded Wonder of the World. The poncho is to adhere to the no umbrella under any circumstance rule for crossing guards.  Protecting the children from harm is priority, not protecting ourselves from the elements.  We should wear non flashy clothing, easy to walk in shoes, which means no heels, open toe footwear, or boots.

The flag is for show, since the ensemble would otherwise be incomplete,  or considered "just for an emergency," somewhat like the role of a co-pilot. I do not dare hold the flag out into traffic, as I am to allow each walking group leader judge traffic and pave the way.  Bowing in bobble form at a 25 degree angle, I greet every student walking by in line one by one with an enthusiastic "good morning: Ohayo gozaimasu," all the while mentally noting the level of enthusiasm in their responses for the next survey from the school regarding general student body greetings performance. I thank the uniformed guard as s/he tips her/his hat signaling that all students have safely passed by making sure that my bow is 5 degrees deeper to up the respect factor from my end. I take tote inventory, and hand off the vest, rain gear, rule book, phone chain, and flag set to the next Mom on the list at 8:00 am.

The top half -- DO NOT USE FLAG illustration -- applies to my corner, the bottom stance is acceptable only for those in district 6, where kids walk across the street near the heavily trafficked train station.

Renrakucho and Renrakubukuro for Handouts and more Handouts

The renrakucho, "information notebook," goes from parent to kid to teacher to kid to parent each day. It's a vertical log, in traditional Japanese hand written style, of daily communication -- a place for parents and the teacher to compose questions, problems or comments. Parents and teachers sign (or signature stamp) it to insure that the information has been conveyed each day, so it acts somewhat like a non-anonymous suggestion box. The student records homework assignments, explanation of handouts sent home for the day, as well as reminders regarding the extra gear or information required for the following day. Extras can be anything from plastic clothes pins, to 5 empty paper towel rolls or a 500ml rinsed out, de-labled, de-capped water bottle, cut into even thirds. Assuming I'd spill the 500ml of liquid in the dissecting process, I just might have the 5 paper towel rolls on hand.


Every Friday the daily schedule comes home in the renrakubukro, the "information bag." It differs from the notebook because it would be sloppy to have lose-leaf papers stuffed into a notebook.  It's a clear folder with a zipper close exclusively for daily handouts, and more secure than anything I use to carry our travel documents.  Each class has a name to spice up her "2nd Grade, Class 1" title, hers is Momotaro. The "peach boy" agenda comes in the form of a double sided, A4 sized paper, with a calendar on one side, spelling out the daily plan to determine what textbooks, notebooks and extras they need that day. Side notes explain lesson course objectives, along with any announcement of a school assembly, health checks or ceremonies.

Tune into the Peach Boy for what's up in class this week
A monthly schedule Kagayaki / Sumairu ("shining / smile") comes home for the entire 2nd grade (comprised of three classes), presenting a bird's eye view into the proposed time school ends, which varies daily, and any grade-wide announcements for the month, such as inviting parents to an open class, or preparing us to welcome the recorder into our homes and ears. Health and safety tips are included at every opportunity, usually reviewing the emphasis on hand washing and gargling after coming inside from outdoor play, the importance of traveling in pairs on weekends, and wearing masks during cold and allergy seasons.

With a Shining Smile, we're reminded to cough up some  fees.
A world away from pizza squares and tater tots

The lunch menu comes home every month, in a complex - looking Excel-like chart with 10 vertical columns on an A3 sized paper, with a breakdown of the staple (rice, bread or noodle), main dish, main ingredients divided into food groups, and caloric and protein contents. A separate handout further breaks down the ingredients, denoting each food, and its source: country, city or county location. This cryptic information came following the 3-11 quake/tsunami/nuclear disaster, in order to reassure parents that the fresh produce, rice and dairy products in school meals weren't being harvested from the disaster zone. The final touch is a box in the lower left disclosing produce which were subjected to pop - quizzes of nuclear testing in the form of cecium readings: in February, for example, the ingredients clocked 73Bq/kg, deemed well within the amount safe for human consumption. Michelin guides don't have a star on this level of detail.

Chart listing the staple dish, milk, side dishes, carbohydrates, proteins, and mineral breakdowns, with a side-note on the menu's nutritional benefits: total calories and fat grams averaged at end.

The menu is different everyday, but the entire school, including faculty and staff, eats the same menu, in the classrooms (there is no school cafeteria). Students form a head table for a serving line in class, and set their desks in clusters of 4-6 to form tables. In group rotation, they don their chef coats, hats and masks; set up, serve and clean up after themselves. They bring their daily "utensil set" to school: chopsticks, square cloth to use as a place mat, face mask for serving and distribution, cup and toothbrush. There is no packing lunch, or going home for lunch. Food is cooked on site in a school kitchen, and you can pretty much smell ramen soup or pot-sticker days from home. After clean up, they brush teeth, then scrub the floors with the rag that dangles from their chair by a laundry hook and head outside for a 20 minutes recess. Those happy cries from the playground somehow off-set the waft of the post menu-scent in the air.

The transformation to fine dining - students set the classroom, serve, eat and clean up after lunch.   No room for "Food Fight!" in this cultural blurb (she's on tray duty -- pictured in serving line, far right).
Health Newsletter

The nurse's room sends a monthly newsletter home, which offers seasonal tips on taking care to prevent colds or flu,  and reinforces study, sleeping and eating habits.  It publishes results of an athletic or nutrition test or survey conducted at school, complete with meticulous pie charts and bar graphs denoting comparative representation nationwide. It informs us when the students will have a "teeth brushing workshop," noting what 7 items to bring for that drill.  

Now so far those health reports sound like semi-normal procedures in any country, until you get to the friendly reminders and tips on how to best use an Eastern toilet (squatter) with illustrated dos and don'ts.  As protocol dictates, the role of the parent in supervising and charting progress is mapped out for our reference.

Tackling the question, "What is poo?"  Bonus lessons on toilet etiquette, flushing and hand washing included. 
Homework and homework, Notebooks and notebooks 

Homework started slowly, but consistently, and with reinforcement, from grade one, day one.  Ondoku seemed monotonous to me: the kids literally read the same chapter aloud from their language arts book every night for a week.  They rate themselves on a chart for volume, confidence, clarity, mistakes and mark the number of times read.  It's the honestly policy, which is instilled from birth, but reinforced in "moral education class."  Parents use the official signature stamp to hanko the evaluation card nightly; not to check that they did it, but to be involved in the process.  

Kids start a running reading list too, ranking the books in a double circle, single circle or triangle review scale based on if they would recommend the titles to their friends.  Math and Kanji (writing in Japanese and Chinese characters) are written and recopied into a different books from their classroom notebooks, solely reserved for the hand-recopying process. If you do the math, there are 2 notebooks for each textbook, which are added to that boxy backpack that goes to and from school every day. This 8 year old has a spine of steel.

Math Cards  

They have a series of flash cards that they go through every night in rote form: again, reading the problem and the answer aloud is the key. Volume is emphasized, probably to aid with confidence building in all these processes, which is nice when you are wondering where your kid is. At least when you hear the Japanese equivalent of, "TWELVE TIMES THIRTEEN IS..." blasting from the other room while you are doing dishes, you know she's not plugged into a violent rap music beyond her years.

I was starting to understand why all kids unabashedly shout songs in music class. Not a rap reference, but based on vocalizing homework on high. In my primary school days, it was a little "uncool," to want to belt out the chorus in music class, which is an unfortunate loss for kids, but adults in earshot might have been a little grateful (well, at least the lazy, wicked ones). 

They fly through these cards at record speed, before and after school, and again before bed.  I'm convinced this flipping skill just helps them text faster as teenagers. (Each card required individual labelling - I'm not convinced that skill helps me with much.)

Holiday Homework

I remember having a reading challenge from the public library during summer vacations growing up. Girls got a cute lady bug shaped colorful card, and the librarians rewarded us with a black circle sticker to add to the bright red wings for each book I checked out, read and returned.  Boys had a caterpillar, and worked on  filling in the "body" with every Dick and Jane they clocked.  That was the extent of my vacation academic efforts, limited to rainy days when a lightening spotting prompted the lifeguards to send us home from the community pool.

The volume and variety of homework and projects during school breaks here is relentless, and getting through it feels like moving at that public library's caterpillar pace. The school hosts explanatory meetings for parents to present homework expectations a month before a "break."  We're briefed on the overall list of assignments and general, which is pretty specific, expectations. Then on last day of school, students take home kanji and math drill books and supplemental worksheets for the vacation, a diary chart, lists of science experiments, as well as a comprehensive booklet listing art and language projects, from which to select four each.

The diary calls for logging their overall plan for the break, then a detailed chart of what they did that day, as well as a weather update in the morning and evening,  which invalidates internet searches after the fact (just a "random" discovery - e'hem).  They chart their meals, chores, exercise and grooming habits, including a separate pictorial chart where they color in various animals at the zoo to represent having brushed teeth after every meal. She's usually a panda or a monkey short in the vacation zoo cage, since twice a day is the best we can ask from our "two thirds of an apple a day keeps the dentist away" little student.

For composition, they choose 5 themes from a list of 10 to illustrate a picture diary and write a brief essay on the event pictured, and why that is a lasting memory worthy of highlighting.  They write a book report, and need to compare the moral from the protagonist to their own experience.  Her winter break report centered around a family of crows that founded a bakery to get through hard times, so she exercised some creativity relating her experience decorating cookies for Santa on that "best-seller."

Format for all projects is rigidly enforced.  The size of paper, ratio of drawing to essay, and the placement of the title, class information, must be exact.  Save your creative coloring out of the lines for the actual art, because the heading and label on one of her art projects was in the wrong place for August 2013, resulting in having it fly back home at that library's lady bug pace.  No do-overs, just do-better the next times. Summer lesson learned.

Athletic homework is school-wide too, with the number of reps for each exercise varying for grade level.  The following sheet represents muscle group strengthening: first through the motion of scrubbing floors and massaging someone's shoulders.  I am most proud she received full marks on this one, and I encourage this type of training year round. The middle section represents toe-touches and flexibility, while part three emphasises the motion of tossing a towel or ball.  As a former lifeguard, towel snapping was a ticket to place a delinquent kid on the pool deck for 15 minutes as a "time out," but now I am enlightened to view it as an educational tool. I'll forgive some ball tosses in the house an even some towel snapping that takes aim at me if it means that equal or greater efforts are put into section one.

"The Three Desired Strengths for East Elementary School Students"

Jump rope homework is beyond me, as it breaks down into the following flow chart of 12 categories of skills to master.  I'm most grateful that we are in a house and no longer rent apartments with people living on a floor below us.  That saves me from a lot of "I'm sorry" baking, despite the fact that thanks to her book report, I have a Crow The Baker patissier in the house.
Luckily they are equally trained in interpreting how to rank their progress in jump rope.  To me it looks more like the element chart, from which I remember H20, not a useless skill since parents are to "oversee hydration during holiday recess physical education."
The grand finale in the athletic homework department is a practice of morning stretches hosted on national public radio.  The week before school resumes in summer, we are called up to a local park (assigned by City hall) for morning calisthenics.  The PTA member that won rock, paper, scissors (well, I call it "losing" in cases like these)  leads the activity and sets up a portable stereo, greets the crowd and takes attendance. Students, parents and community residents show up shortly after 6 am, reinforcing the idea that it takes a village to stay in shape. The routine is only a ten or so minute workout, but the ritual is more than ten-fold, secretly getting kids from establishing a habit of oversleeping in the build up to back to school, and giving them that extra boost in the morning to dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s in their summer project portfolios.  As a good parent, I try to encourage as much review of that floor scrubbing and shoulder massaging exercise as well, just to be sure every last kink is out before she marches off with the walking group in September.
NHK morning calisthenics card is also collected when school resumes, attendance recorded by color coded stickers (differing each session, so you can't load up on blue and sleep in), awarded by the PTA member assigned to roll call. 
During "vacations," parents are not without homework.  I am the human label maker, and I stress human since we are to hand write their names, as mass produced labels do not demonstrate your love for your child to the same degree.  Assigned to assess all supplies and ensure that any faded name patches are reinforced, elastic repaired, and ailing handmade cloth totes or umbrellas replaced. Handmade items express devotion in ways that commercially produced items cannot -- I love my child so much that I follow commercials to the local tailor, and commission her to produce them by hand.

Like student projects, format is essential.  I will get "return to labeler" if I use the wrong size, detail or placement in writing her name, grade and class assignment on every item that "walks" out of our door.
Class Observation Days

Where I grew up, the day parents came to school was called an "Open House."  They attended their child's classroom during the early part of the school year, to hear the teacher's class policy and ask any questions if necessary.  It was held in the evening, probably to accommodate working parents' schedules, in a kid-free environment, which I imagine is one of the goals of success for parent-teacher communication.  

In our case, after the first couple weeks of school, the first of three required "Open Class Lessons" is held.  Parents are invited to observe a regular school day, non-rehearsed class.  The objectives include getting exposure to the teacher, the class dynamic, and meeting other parents.  Every family is represented -- it's excepted that a working parent would take off work for this priority.  There are no stickers for attendance, but in their own way, they send us signals that we are graded (see labeling chart above).  Also, by "parents," I mean, "mothers" (see Patrol section). After the lesson, students are released from school and parents stay for a group meeting with the teacher.  Note that they are released to the playground while the adult supervision remains in the classroom.  That said, I have no memory of who was watching me when my parents were at Open House, but I bet they were good memories.
Class observation day: live action of "training students to be model citizens and contribute to the greater society," one of her 2nd grade teacher's goals.  My goal is to model school supplies according to the dimensions on the chart, but we all have to start somewhere.

Kids as Custodians

"Bill the Janitor" was as an important part of our elementary school community as our classroom teacher, or the lunch line lady that would always slip an extra jello square on your tray. Bill was always cheerful, and amazing at knowing our names, or at least us messy kids' names.  There may be three TAs assigned to each class in her elementary school here (2 circulate for math, 1 floats in for kanji lessons), but nary a custodian seen anywhere on staff.

Walk into any classroom in Japan and you'll be struck by the gray rag hanging from the back of each chair by a clothes pin.  You won't be able to decide immediately which part strikes the most - the fact that each kid has a clothes pin on a ring on hand, or that the size of the zokin is off - too small for a hand towel but too thick for a hanky, or the fact that you suspect the original color was white, or, finally, why there is a student name in black marker on the corner of each rag. After lunch, students get down and get dirty with those mysterious down and dirty zokin.

Classical music takes over the loud-speakers as they scrub floors, windows, surface tops and sinks and bathrooms. East Elementary School is particularly proud of their "no talking during cleaning" policy.  They claim they are the front-runners over the other 5 primary schools in the City, and silent cleaning is more effective than if they were allowed to chat while they scour.  Also, the meditative effect is apparently good for overall student development. In fact, cleaning is such an important part of their education that, you'll recall from the Athletic homework section, they are assigned to continue to develop this specific muscle movement during their "vacations."  Again, reinforcing this facet of education is another I can "quietly" support. With Mop and Glow.

She brought her zokin home on her last day of 2nd grade.  The faded label in the upper right has her name and class, it's over a kanji test she carried home in the same backpack to illustrate the contrast in black on white, though this is a color photo.
With the proverbial zokin we've swept in and out of 2nd grade, with only a couple stains to grow on.  With each bead of the abacus we slide to the other side, we can watch her add to the amount of independence she's taking from her practices, as foreign as they seem from my State-side experiences.  But I am learning too, and much more than just the proper dimensions for the label on the class cleaning rag.  I'll support her in some of her athletic homework again this break, and train for having to chase the unicycle that the gym class curriculum introduces next term. Holding in my comparisons will be my part of the "silent training," that East Elementary School fosters as those one-wheeled rotations roll us toward 3rd grade.  Since I admit I did toss the above zokin in the trash after I took the photo, maybe I'll at least adapt the classical theme and proudly wave her off into her new school in April 2013, this time, to Mozart.