Friday, August 31, 2007

Patrick's First Day at an Elementary School

Today I visited an elementary school for the first time. Over the course of the next year, I will visit about six elementary schools for two days each. The two visits will often be months apart.

Last week I met three of the teachers to prepare for my visit. As they told me, I mostly played games with the kids so I didn't have to prepare much.

Of course, I expected the kids to be loud. But they were extremely loud. At the beginning of class, they all have to stand up and say good morning. Except they liked to yell.

Today I worked with the second, fourth, and fifth grades. I sang "Head, shoulders, knees, and toes" about thirty times. I helped them learn names for animals, foods, and sports.

I was quite a celebrity. I signed my autograph about seventy times for the fifth graders. I signed all sorts of things, including folders, bookmarks, pencil cases, and lunch boxes. When it was time to go, the second fifth grade class physically blocked the door and forced the objects they wanted signed upon me. It was a little strange.

By contrast, when I walked down the hall by the first grade classrooms, many of them screamed, ran, and hid. I get this reaction sometimes when I'm riding around the city, as well. But then, I also get the reverse-- little kids run up and say hello, goodbye, and then run off.

But the most surprising event for me was the school lunch. This is the first time I had seen a school lunch in Japan. The students eat in their classroom with their teacher. So, all the food has to be carted up the stairs, which is especially hard for the small students since even the lightest cafeteria trays full of food for about thirty kids weigh several pounds.

But, the good news is, (I believe) the lunch is completely free, and kids are allowed to eat as much as they want. Today, we had peppers and cabbage with chicken over rice, boiled vegetables, vegetable soup, and an orange slice with milk. It tasted pretty good, and the bowl of boiled vegetables reminded me of Grandma Carroll's vegetable soup that I like so much. It's also served without any Styrofoam or plastic, and even the chopsticks are (the durable kind of) wood. And, being mostly vegetables (there was very little chicken) with nothing fried, it compares very favorably with what I was fed in junior high.

So I ate lunch with the fifth graders and then I stayed in their room for the post-lunch recess. During recess, they wanted to play card games with me, but I didn't know any of the Japanese games (or I did but I didn't recognize the games) so I taught them slapjack (Egyptian ratscrew) and war. Those are probably not the best two games to teach little kids (slapjack being the game where you flip cards until you see two of the same and then the first one to slam their hand down on top picks up the cards) but they are very simple and I was able to explain them in about thirty seconds and get the kids playing. I made the mistake, however, of telling them the latter game was called war and immediately one little boy started attacking the other players.

After that their teacher had left so at their request I held my hand in the air and they would run and jump and try to head butt it. I guess I found dumb shit like that entertaining when I was little too.

Anyway, despite feeling a little weird from time to time it was a very fun day. And although I generally prefer older children over younger ones on account of their greater knowledge, I can see at least one reason now for teaching elementary over junior high school: the elementary kids actually like most of their teachers, and you don't have to do much to be cool to them, while with junior high at best it takes a lot of effort.

The worst part was it poured for five hours straight, and I got completely soaked on the way home.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Catherine, My apartment

Dear everyone,
People have been bugging me to provide pictures of my apartment so here are some. They are in no particular order and could quite possibly be backwards. Anyways enjoy.
This is my closet. I put stuff in it on hangers. I wear those slippers a lot.
This is my futon. It's more comfortable than it looks. It also has sheets on it normally but at this time I was washing them like a responsible adult (who sleeps with a stuffed cow every night).
This is the ladder that leads to the loft where I sleep every night. I have to climb up and down it to go to bed at night and to get up in the morning. Some night (probably soon) I will fall off this ladder on my way to have a pee in the middle of the night. Wish me luck.
This is my main room. It is actually pretty spacious and as you can see has lots of light. It's a lot cleaner now I swear.

This is the view from my front door. My "kitchen" and hallway leading to the main room.

These are my washing machine, refrigerator and microwave. The microwave makes toast and you can bake a cake in it but I can't reliably heat up food. Ah the joys of Japanese living.
This is my "kitchen" I can make a mess in it and that's about all. The cart you see before you is the only prep space I have.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sara's school

I am the ALT for Shitakouji. I work with five teachers and sit by three of them in the teachers' office. My fist day of classes was on the 28th of August and since there are around 600 students, the grades are broken into 6 classes each. The grades are 7th, 8th, and 9th and are labeled 1, 2, and 3. In one week I will teach 17 classes. I had 4 classes my first day. The first was with class 2 of 8th grade (labeled 2-2). They were really quiet and shy to speak. However now, all the students in all the grades seem to have gotten used to me and often say hello or try to have a conversation with me.

Right now, when I don't have class, I am in the teachers' office and at my desk. I have to correct around 100, 4-sentence essays. The topic is 'My Dream' and the most common dreams are:

Boys: baseball, soccer, or tennis player.

Girls: nursery school teacher, or nurse.

One thing that I notice is that the Japanese textbook treats infinitives as prepositions. This is a little painful to correct since out of the 100 essays, only 10 have correct grammar.

Then after classes and correcting papers, I help a student practice for the Morioka speech contest. Most schools are participating in it and while Patrick has a lot of students to help, I’m lucky and only have one.

The contest is focused on being able to speak English. I don’t really know what the judges will be looking for in particular, but I have been trying to help out my student’s pronunciation.

Catherine's school

At my school, Josei Jr. High School, everyone is pretty excited to have an AET. The students see me in the hallways and do the walk by "Hello" and then giggle when I respond. It's nice to be appreciated. At the same time it seems silly to me to be admired for being able to speak my native language. I do have a few smart alicks who mimic their teacher's praise by saying "good job" or "great English" to me. On the whole the students are well adjusted, interested, and excited to learn. I'm really glad to be teaching.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Obon is in the middle of August and is a holiday lasting several days where families visit the graves of their ancestors. Obon is a celebration of the Shinto religion and the belief behind the celebration is that the spirits of one's ancestors returns to Earth to visit. For this reason, lanterns are often light out side of houses to guid ancestors back to homes. At the end of the week, special lanterns are lit and are released into a near by river to guid the spirits back into the spirit realm. In many places in Japan, this special event at a river is called Toronagashi.

In Morioka, however, it is called Funekko Oroshi. This is because part of the celebration involves setting aflame boats (about twenty, one for each neighborhood) full of fireworks on a river. (In Japanese, the word for boat is fune). Although bad for the environment, it is quite a spectacle.

As the people (mostly men, and a few women) who pull the boats down the river are nearly naked, it is also I imagine quite dangerous, since the fireworks and debris could be seen spilling out of the boats.

At the end of the festival, several hundred fireworks were shot off as men set paper lanterns out to float down the river.

Watch the video (about three and a half minutes long, no sound) below. The people are a little compressed because the original video is widescreen but on the internet it has to be a square rather than a rectangle.

Patrick's School- Shimonohashi

This past Monday the term opened and I began to teach at Shimonohashi Junior School. Shimonohashi is the oldest school in the city, has a small museum inside (very rare), and counts among its alumni many famous people, including a poet and a prime minister.

The school has about 300 students, divided into three classes per grade, plus one special education class and one class for deaf students.

Each week, I will work exclusively with one grade of students, and at the end of each week I will switch down a grade. So, this first week I worked with the third year (ninth grade) students; next week I will work with the second year (eighth grade), and the week after the first year (seventh grade) students. From time to time I will also visit the special education students and the deaf students' classroom.

There are three English teachers at my school. Mr. Miura teaches the third year students, and Mr. Suzuki teaches the second year students. Mr. Miura and Mr. Suzuki share the teaching of the first year students. They are assisted by a third English teacher, who has no classes of her own. This means that sometimes I am working with two teachers, and other times I am working with three.

Unfortunately, at my school the vice principal is very ill. The vice principal is generally responsible for handling a lot of the scheduling and activities preparation of the school; since he has been gone for at least several months, and they are not seeking a replacement, it means that all of the teachers are under significant additional stress.

I have a desk in the teachers' room with the group of second year teachers. I sit next to two of my English teachers, which is helpful.

In Shimonohashi, students must ask for special permission and declare a reason to enter the teachers' room. This is slightly more strict than most junior high schools. Of the six ALT junior high schools, mine is ranked (by test score) highest.

In addition to team teaching classes, I have been visiting Mr. Suzuki's homeroom and talking to the kids during lunch and cleaning time.

I am also helping prepare students for the speech competition (which is in English). There are actually two contests- one for the best speech a student has written, and one for the best recitation of a story from the textbook. This means I have to show up at school at 7:45, which is a little painful. However, I am finished each day around four o'clock, which gives me plenty of time to relax before dinner.

For the term opening ceremony, I had to introduce myself in English and Japanese to an assembly of all of the students and teachers. Having done this before when I was on the Earlham study abroad program in Morioka three years ago, I was ok. I was not prepared, however, for what followed-- 300 students doing a prepared, choreographed dance for me. That sure surprised me.

The first week of lessons for the third year students centered on a story about a young girl who comforts a little boy after the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, and that night despite their best efforts they both die. It was a little awkward to start with, but thankfully Mr. Miura made it easier.

Of course, it has only been a week, but so far I really enjoy working at my school.

Morioka Weather

Our first few weeks it was quite hot here, but thankfully it has cooled down significantly. I have found that this week leaving the windows open is sufficient to stay cool.

Although Morioka is inland enough that we are not particularly at risk for typhoons, they do significantly increase the precipitation. In the past two weeks, it has rained on perhaps ten days, usually for an hour or more.

Morioka Junior High Schools

In Morioka, there are about twenty public junior high schools. As an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), our job is to work at one of those junior high schools for an entire year as an assistant/team teacher. During that time, the job also requires that we visit several elementary schools once or twice each. Our contract is for two years, and at the end of our first year (next July), we will switch to another junior high school.

Thus, Catherine, Paul, Sara, and I do not work together, but rather separately at individual schools. There are also three other ALTs on the Earlham program in Morioka in the same situation (they arrived last year).

There are a few major differences between Japanese and US junior high schools. First, all Japanese junior high schools include seventh, eighth, and ninth grade. There are no 6-7-8 or 7-8 schools.

Second, all of the students are required to wear uniforms. This does not mean they have to wear a certain kind of clothes like a dress code, but rather they must all wear the exact same shirt, dress, etc. This includes shoes, which are color-coded to the year of the student. It follows that jewelery and such are also not permitted.

Teachers, however, can dress fairly casually. In fact, as long as you show up looking somewhat decent, you can get away with changing into gym clothes and wearing shorts and a tshirt for the rest of the day.

Third, and perhaps the largest difference and the one most important to understanding our jobs, is that students stay in the same room with the same group every day and teachers move from room to room. So, the same group of students are with each other all day. This is called a homeroom. Each teacher is responsible for one homeroom, and they meet together at the beginning of the day and the end of the day. This is a chance for the teachers to really bond with a specific group of students. Of course, as assistant teachers, we do not have a homeroom of our own that we are responsible for, but we can visit other homerooms.

In addition to their daily meetings, students eat lunch in their homeroom. Some schools have a (very healthy) school lunch, while other schools require all students to bring their lunch and provide only milk. But since there is no cafeteria and there is one teacher eating with thirty students or so, there is not such an opportunity for delinquency that a cafeteria allows.

Further, students are responsible for cleaning their own homeroom. This generally means they are maybe a bit more careful to avoid causing a mess.

Because teachers rotate rather than students, and students all have the same classes, it allows for very flexible schedules. Students often have different classes in a different order each week. This simplifies taking field trips and doing special activities, since all classes can be rescheduled and one need not worry about penalizing one class consistently if the activity is late in the day, or early in the morning.

In the teachers' room, all teachers have their desks. Teachers are grouped by the grade they teach, and they sit in order of the length of time they have spent at the school. Many teachers transfer (or are forced to transfer) from school to school after four years.

Also, there is a national curriculum. This means that all the schools use similar textbooks and are covering basically the same material within a week or so of any other given school. Further, textbooks then need only include what will be taught, and since there are no optional materials, the textbooks are a good deal thinner and lighter than their US counterparts.

Lastly, the Japanese school year begins in April, and the first term ends sometime in July. Summer vacation stretches from July to August; thus, as we begin teaching at our schools, we are fortunate to be able to join them at the beginning of the second semester, a logical entry point.

Patrick's Apartment

My apartment is in Nasukawa-cho, about five minutes north of the downtown area. I am living directly below Catherine in the same apartment building. To Sara's apartment is about seven minutes by bicycle, and to Paul's it is about twenty minutes. The apartment is situated at the intersection of an expressway, a major road, and a train crossing, so it is a bit noisy but it is also very easy to find.

I am very fortunate that Charlie, the ALT who lived in the apartment before me, left it in excellent shape. In Japan, there is a practice known as "key money" whereupon one who wants to lease a new apartment presents the landlord with a gift-- not a deposit, but a gift-- of three to six months' rent. Thankfully, the Morioka Board of Education leases several apartments for us ALTs in perpetuity so that we are able to avoid this fee. As a result, however, we have no choice in where to live. Also, we are/were expected to purchase the belongings of our predecessor (furniture, pots and plates, hangars, etc.). So I am very glad that Charlie not only cleaned the place up well but kept all of his stuff in good shape.

The Board of Education also provided some basic furnishings, including a refrigerator, stovetop, washer (clothes need to be hung out to dry), television, and bicycle. After paying Charlie $300, I inherited a couch, a desk, several shelving units, a table that can heat itself, cooking and cleaning supplies, and fans. I also have an air conditioning unit, though I have used it only a few times. Plus, Charlie also left me all of his teaching supplies, which were fairly organized and will no doubt prove helpful in the months ahead.

As for the apartment in general, I really like the hardwood floors. It is a bit narrow but this is mostly alleviated by the high ceiling. The loft where I sleep is the most spacious I have seen, and I can sit up in it. Because of the little guard wall, I think it is also completely secure, and the ladder is extremely sturdy since it locks unto a metal bar that is bolted to the wall. There is plenty of space for all of my stuff now and I doubt I will be collecting many large items over the course of the next two years.

Ok, now for the pictures:

the view from the inside

the kitchen; the little counter is actually a cart that pulls out, very convenient

the bathroom; unfortunately, my toilet can only do strong flush and weak flush; more sophisticated toilets have control panels... it does have a sink on top, though, so you can wash your hands in the water after you flush as the water recharges for the next flush, which is efficient

the sink; it has a nice medicine cabinet and storage area

the shower/bath

the bath tub is a little small, but it's ok for a shower

the main room... it was my idea to bring the fridge out here next to the computer

the couch, computer, and refrigerator

my bed is above the closet

the futon... it's not as uncomfortable as it looks

all of the storage stuff I have squirreled away next to the bed

the king's view (from the bed)


Sara's Birthday- 11 August 2007

From left to right- Catherine, Sara, Paul; front- Patrick

Hello, everyone. In this blog Catherine, Paul, Sara, and I will write about our experiences as Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) in Morioka, Japan. We arrived in Japan on July 30 and will be teaching English in junior high schools in Iwate prefecture for two years.

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