Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mother and Daughter Pre-Back to School Day in Japan

The last Saturday of August: It's Pre-Back to School Day!

You read that right, it's not Back to Pre-School, though for this Kyoiku Mama,* who on most days feels barely out of training pants, it really should be. *Kyoiku Mama is a cultural concept/phrase referring to the over-devoted, full-time job of a Mother devoted to her offspring's education. Sure, it's loaded with negative connotations, but not as bad as its counterpart, Mamagon, which is more of the relentless drill sergeant variety, stemming from, "Mama Godzilla."

Saturday School?  Coming from the Midwest, the idea of Saturday School is nothing more than an 80s image of The Breakfast Club.  You must have been vandalising cars in the teachers' parking lot, caught smoking in the bathroom, or just plain having run out your share of get out of the Principal's office free cards.

But here in the Far East, the last Saturday of August solidifies the END of the summer "holiday" from school.  Holiday is in quotations since kids are not without daily homework during the "break."  Hana is in fourth grade.  They begin the school year April first, which is not an April Fool's joke although most days I feel like I live one, and they have summer recess at the end of July around the national Marine Day holiday. This means that she returns after the summer to the same class, same teacher.  Not to waste valuable school time on review or relearning, they are responsible for redoing their entire spring term as well as exploring some new avenues during the month of August.

This required pre-back to school Saturday is scheduled for the sole purpose of submitting their summer homework.  Yup, an entire day devoted to handing in assignments.  If for some reason your family plans, which would have to be a medical emergency, dictate that you cannot attend the pre-day, a room at the school is staffed from 10 AM to 3 PM every day the of the previous week for advanced submission. This strategy eliminates the last ditch to skip the day and pull last minute scrambles crossing T's and dotting I's until Monday. (Note that unforeseeable medical emergencies are hard to know about in advance, so really, everyone shows up with bags in hand, yellow hat on head and boxy backpack strapped on for The Day.)

Yellow hat, boxy backpack full of drill books, reports and worksheets. Bag full of arts and crafts projects. Note the uniform umbrella remains in the stand, as the 7:30 AM sun shines through. Happy Saturday School!
The page long checklist includes an entire summer workbook, a national publication cleverly titled, "Summer Workbook."  It's divided into two parts - from one end you page through the reading, vocabulary and writing exercises, and from the other you work your way through the math word problems.  In addition to this, they have two complete drill books: one for kanji, and the other math.  They completed these books during the school term by showing their work and answers on separate standardized notebooks, so in the summer, they re-did the problems without referencing their archived work directly in the book. Back to the checklist: Math drills #4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 23, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 47. The gaps in the numbers are simply pages that had no place to work the problem and write the answer directly.  Otherwise, they pretty much relived April through July in three weeks. Kanji: 8, 14, 18, 22, 28, 34, 38, 42, 52.  These exercises are highlighted in bold type in the book since they are common trouble spots. They tend to pronounce as the write kanji, so I'll hear "government" "policy" "environment" on long haul flights or with a Disney Channel soundtrack piping in the background. (Shhh, that's breaking rules #1 and #2 of the Kyoiku Mama handbook.)

In addition to reteaching themselves the basics, they had a 1200 word book report due, and a minimum of three projects "of different categories" from a city-wide distributed booklet.  The projects range from calligraphy, arts and crafts (invention), science experiments to additional book reports, or essay writing. The city sponsors this project since they are in turn submitted to various organisations for contest or display after they are checked off the "done" list by their classroom teacher.

Separate worksheets cover physical education (jumping rope, throwing, leg extensions, back bends and sit-ups) as well as dental hygiene (coloring in sails of a boat for each morning, noon and night you brush your teeth during the entire break).  There is a small colorful card produced by NHK (the national broadcasting channel) for the morning radio calisthenics program.  The week preceding "pre-back to school day," students go to the local parks or school grounds based on their location where the Mama that drew the shortest straw is center-staged with a boom box with speakers.  I know how out of date the term boom box is, but it's really what it is, with the AM tuner and antenna to boot. The 6:25 AM call leads them through light stretches and non impact aerobics to get their heart rates up and their brains ticking for the day.  A side "educational benefit" is to just get them awake and into a morning routine so the new term time-line isn't a post vacation shock.  They don't complain about this "exercise," probably since they get an attendance sticker on each day you attend, and the color and shape changes so there is not fudging your own grade (though I think that's my American brain looking for ways to cut corners).

The lifestyle worksheet is a large, one page A3 sized paper where you note your daily activity, somewhat like a diary chart.  There are boxes to the side of "what I did this day" to check off if you met your study and homework goals for that day too, as well as a weather box - was it sunny, cloudy or rainy. The weather does dictate that the kids have to do it everyday, and not cram a list at the end since it's pretty for the non internet wired age to arbitrarily make up typhoons and heat waves. 

So bi-culturally and cross-continentally, how do we do it?  My policy is to get as much as possible done in the ten days before we take off to visit family in the States.  She finished the Summer Workbook pre-departure, as well as the math drill book.  She was motivated to finish in part thanks to the help of kids from other schools, including "kids" enrolled at the university where I teach during the week she was on "break" before I was - they love "group work" or at least side by side study (code for what I consider a sad playdate) in this country.

University student support - she's making use of my office hours with two "tutors." She has the  Summer Workbook open in front of her, the pink kanji drill book is on the right, and the math drill book is the blue one in the center.
Kanji is the Achilles heel for most kids, so I knew that one would be coming with us in our luggage.  We were saving the book report and invention and art projects for the week we returned.  Ideally, a book report requires more than a week, but the reality is it's too contextually different for her to read a Japanese novel while we're in the States, but drills, we can muddle through.  Knowing the book report would be daunting, I insisted (good Kyoiku Mama) on finishing the kanji drill book before our final return flight from LAX. It helped that our domestic connection flight had not kids' movie, and when you're 9, the tray table is an appropriate desk size to chalk off a couple exercises. Finally, we were on the layover after a three week trip in an airport restaurant when she finally put her head up, pencil down and declared, "done!" That victory was sweeter to me than sailing through security check lines hassle free. (As an added bonus, her procrastination served us well, since we had to carry on the kanji book, and Delta took even a slower pace at transferring our checked bags to Singapore Airlines - no risk of turning it in late!)

We arrived home on a Thursday night and Friday morning we were at the library when it opened at 9 AM (jet lag dictates getting up early).  We narrowed down the selection of books for her grade level, and swiftly and checked out.  For the next couple of hours we were tooling around town on back-to-life-post-trip errands: bank, post office, the bakery, the grocery store. While driving I had the radio off and was listening to chapter after chapter of the wonderful story of an imaginative girl who liked drawing - everything she painted came to life.  She and a giraffe with a peach colored neck end up saving a forest of animals, after having faced obstacle after obstacle, from a mean orange colored bear.  After having hammered out the read in a day, it was time to outline the plot, how she related to the character, her critique of the story and what left the biggest impression on her, next write, and rewrite in the distributed paper for the final draft.

She chose the original Japanese title on the far left based on its shorter length (that's my girl). I held back from letting her know that the Laura Ingalls Wilder novel in the middle and Ramona the Brave book to the right were titles I could pinch hit in the plot process (two dutiful Kyoiku Mama points there).
We stopped by her school where they were 15 large manila envelopes hanging outside the staff room with the application papers for the various crafts and projects.  Each NPO or public facility that sponsors the assignment has its own form so we chose our 3 projects and gutted our craft, tools and do it yourself stashes in the house.  She chose to do a painting representing Bird Week, so we biked to the local zoo and she propped herself up and sketched two varieties of owls.  One of the others was "the green of Saitama," which she could do with the 5 AM sunlight on jet lag in front of our house and simply doing a "still life" of our garden and tree line.  She invented a pair of water proofed, non - slip shoes specific for the pogo stick as well as a wallet-purse that has separate sections for Japanese Yen, US Dollars, and travel documents out of colorful duct tape.  (Her next challenge will probably be pogo-ing to the States to visit her cousins with that combo of goods.)

As the Kyoiku Mama, my duties were *lite.*  I was to check her work (circle every correct answer, draw and "X" through the incorrect ones) and calculate the percentage out of 100% on every exercise in the bath book and Summer Workbook (we are given answer keys for this chore). Also, there is general policing that everything is getting done, but that severity probably varies from house to house. Our big "show your love and respect for your kid and the school" comes on the Big Pre-Back to School Day.

From left, the project booklet from which to choose 3, the answer key for "Mamas" for the Summer Workbook,  a hint of the assigned paper with squares for each written character for the book report, and math drill answer guide. We are to grade the workbook and drill book, marking answers in red pencil, calculating percentage correct in blue pencil.
Yes, we join them on the blissful Saturday school day where the students lug their summer homework to school. The kids head to their classrooms, the Moms stay in the school yard and WEED THE GROUNDS.  We bring plastic bags, gloves, hand gardening tools and take stake in our allotted plot, divided by class, to beautify the grounds.  I guess this is part of our transition from having provided the healthy summer homework environment during the "vacation" to now release our children back to school under optimum conditions.  I suppose I wouldn't thrive in gym class either if I knew there was poison ivy lurking about near the tether ball pole when I was little either.

We are class 4-3, behind the school pool.
Diagramming weeding plots keeps our
hiding to a minimum and our attendance mandatory.
Once the students submit the fruits of their labor, they and the teachers join us and we complete the job together, according to the map (pictured at left).  We finish according to the minute by minute agenda, and return home (to our garden yard full of weeds on shame display a mere 300 meters from the school).  Saturday school, Pre-Back to School Day is over, and she is absolutely FREE for the first time for rest of the night and Sunday before the term resumes on Monday, September first.  We spent the day restocking school supplies, ironing all the required towels, cloths, handkerchiefs, lunch smocks and reinforcing the elastic straps on her gym and commuting hats.  We will be refreshing the labels of her name and class number on everything through the night, but somehow, we feel the lift of the summer work behind us and are geared up for the daily loads that come home throughout the fall term.  Now that is an American Labor Day in Japan, a day which in the States, even the Breakfast Club would have off. Let Freedom, and school bells, ring!

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