Monday, April 12, 2010

First Day of School: Higashiyama!

So today was the day! My first day of being an ALT at Higashiyama Elementary School. This is my first of six schools, so in a sense this is the first of six “first days” for me. And I know (just judging from the difference in locations and layouts) that each school is going to have its own quirks. But if this first day is any judge, I think it's going to be a GREAT time all around.

My day started less than fortuitously, stepping out of my apartment to discover it was raining, and then having to run back in to get an umbrella (which I hardly used; I don't know why I went back for it as I only use umbrellas when the sky is literally pouring) and then jumping on my bike to get to the bus stop. There are about 10 or more buses leaving from the Toyota Station, and finding the correct bus stop can be a real trial, as I learned on Sunday when I searched for Higashi-yama. But I felt I had this locked down from yesterday, only to find myself becoming lost again as I biked rapidly (cursing under my breath...hopefully the nice Japanese people wouldn't understand) trying to find it. I found the station in time (phew!) and once on the bus, it was smooth sailing.

I found spotted a SUNTAS (sounds like Thanks according to Mie) Convenience Store right near my school. SUNTAS's have a multi-language copy machine that includes “American English” which is a huge win. I hadn't had time to stop at the one near my apartment, and was despairing getting my lesson plans copied, so spotting that SUNTAS so close to the school was a huge win! With this bus I have a choice between being ridiculously early or late, so I had plenty of time to get to the school by 8:15am (I'm supposed to start at 8:30am, but in Japan that means 8:15am; early is a fact of life here). I was also able to help out an older man who spoke/read mainly Portuguese with his copies, as he was having a hard time setting the papers. I did this in the Portuguese language settings, as once you get to know these copiers, they work the same (though it's a trick to get to know these copiers). So before getting to school, I'd already accomplished one good deed for the day. Yay!

I got to school around 8:15, just on time to be early, and was met quickly by staff who showed me a desk that was mine for the day (yay!) and gave me a schedule. I had mostly sixth grade classes with one fifth grade class, teaching four classes this day. My first period was FREE, so I offered to help with stuff and generally tried to make myself useful. Before the first period though, there was a morning assembly in the gym which I got to participate in. School assemblies in Japan are SO different from assemblies in Philadelphia. First, (at least at this school) there were no chairs. Second, they are ridiculously organized. Students stood in lines by class, and were instructed through words and demonstration how to stand properly in rows. They held their hands in front of them to put enough room between them and the person in front of them, while the kids at the front of the line stood with hands on hips. Once everyone was situated, the group was instructed (this is the entire student population) to sit down. And then for some reason to stand up again (maybe more organization, don't know).

Once everyone was properly situated, two students, one representing the upper grades, and another representing the lower grades, stood at the front of the assembly and quickly let the Principal (on stage) know that the assembly was ready to begin. There was bowing (hence more standing and then sitting), and the principal (Kouchou-sensei) gave a brief talk, the gist of which seemed to be about their “sibling” school Minami-yama (that's South Mountain: I'm at East Mountain). He talked a bit about how old the relationship was, the year it started told in Showa, specifically talking about how the Sakura trees that bloomed so beautifully now around the school were baby trees at the time of the beginning of this relationship. I really like the Principal of this school. He has a serious but kind demeanor, and anyone who can talk about Sakura and keep the rapt attention of over a hundred Elementary School kids clearly has something going for him.

After that, because I had asked/chosen to go to the assembly, I had the spot opportunity to briefly introduce myself to the entire school. That's one way to meet your first day jitters head on! I asked the teachers if they preferred English or Japanese, and they said English, but to say in Japanese “Vash to yonde kusai, like Basketo Shoes!” That basketo-shoes comparison has been a Godsend in so many ways. So I did, doing my best to emote and try and get some laughs. It went fairly well (though I thought I could have been better paced...I was a bit nervous, weird I know). One of the teachers said it was “sugoi, subarashii” (amazing, great!) but even if I'd thrown up on my own shoes and ran from the gym in tears, I'd have probably gotten at least a “subarashii” so who really knows.

As the children left the assembly (in neat lines, after a bit more reorganization before leaving), I made sure to smile and say hello to as many as I could. They ran the gambit from super genki (into it!) and a bit embarrassed. It is true: Japanese kids are much more easily embarrassed than kids from the States. I think my method of compensating is to act so ridiculously insane that nobody could be embarrassed around me. We'll see how well this works through the year.

The rest of my first period was “free,” so I looked over my lesson plan and tried to prepare my materials. In no time, it was second period, and I was in classroom 6-1 (sixth grade, first class). The class went a bit differently than I'd imagined on two levels. 1. From my training, I'd had the expectation that the Homeroom Teacher (HRT) would want to be “in charge” and that I would be in more of an assistant role. I thought that my Jikoshoukai would be about 20-30 minutes of the 45 minute period, and so I prepared a lot of materials with the expectation that I'd have way more prepared than the time necessary. In fact, I left some of my activities at my desk, confident that I had more than enough. I was wrong. In the first class, I ran out of materials about 10 minutes before the end of class.


So I had to ad-lib something from training, and pretend I had confidence in this exercise. It wasn't a disaster, but it wasn't a win either. And then, in the last minute, my ad-libbed exercise ran out, and I had nothing. My brain was frantically trying to come up with a solution, and I remembered that I had my Obama mask (from the last Presidential Election) in my materials. I had nixed using it, because I don't have a picture of the Japanese Prime Minister, but with nothing else, I figured What the Hell!

It was a WIN! The kids immediately recognized Obama and were laughing their medium sized butts off (6th graders) at me with Obama's face. I redid some greetings, shook hands, etc, with the kids. This time, my adlibbed lesson on greetings was energetic and good. Afterwards, they all tried on the mask (I'm going to order another one I think once I get through my two weeks of this self introduction lesson. After the first class, I knew it was time to get the activities I'd left in my office and rethink my entire lesson plan for this grade. Thankfully I had about 20 minutes because it was their recess period, so I ran back to the office, got the giant fly swatters, and decided to do a whisper line as my second activity (the first was: what's missing?) and the third Karuta.

The second class went better than the first, though I still had to create a new activity because I even with the three activities, I still ended up with an extra two minutes. For this class's lesson though, I made sure to move slower and include more repetition than the last one. I also had gotten into the flow of my lesson plan and began to have more fun with it and my HRT. The second class (6-3) had an HRT that wanted to be more involved, which helped a lot too! I introduced the Obama mask in a lot sooner, using it as a part of my teaching of greetings and other games.

But the third class was the one that went the best. This was 6-2, and it was their joy in life to whack at things with fly swatters. I modified my fly swatter game (incorporating a “whisper down the lane” was too complicated) so instead I had the two kids with fly swatters face the back of the room while I said “I like...” or “I am from...” or “Sensei likes...” etc, and then pointing at the appropriate picture and letting the class shout out the word, while the two students with fly swatters raced each other to see who could hit the appropriate picture first. About 6-7 rounds into the game, I added Obama to the mix, and let the kids take occasional whacks at him too. It was especially exciting for the kids to cheerfully yell “Obama” and whack him with a fly swatter with occasional shouts of “Yes we can!” In the U.S.A., we reserve this honor for adults.

In class 6-3, I also was able to develop a really excellent rapport with my HRT. I think this is a skill that was increasing in ability as I went through each class. After 6-3, it was time for lunch, and Japanese school lunches and lunch periods are SOOOO different from the States. First, some students in each class are responsible for serving the food. Second: they do it on REAL DISHES. But apparently, you have to bring your own utensils (something I'd heard before but forgot to pack: thankfully the staff room had some extra chopsticks). I made sure to eat with one of my classes (6-1) and after a bit of encouragement from the HRT, the students were asking me questions. I accidentally squeezed the milk container too hard while talking to one of the kids, creating a mini-milk geyser that the kids found entertaining, but not as entertaining as American Kids would I think. I wasn't trying to be entertaining at all, and one of the girls brought me a roll or toilet paper so I could clean it up. I think because the kids do all of the cleaning in these schools (we'll get to cleaning time soon), making a mess is only so funny.

Now in regards to the food: OMG! Wow! So much tastier and weirder than what I had at home. When the food was first served out, it looked like a bowl of white rice, some Spaghetti-O's, and a fried chicken patty. I thought “why do people say these lunches are so delicious and so different from what we eat at home?” Then I tasted it. The “Spaghetti-O's” were actually squid (the little circles) with onion and shrimp in some kind of sweet red sauce. The “chicken patty” was actually a fried Edamame patty. I did get the rice and milk right though. Overall, the meal was both tasty and filling. And for less than $3 a day, holy amazing!

Afterwards the students dismantled their milk boxes, separating the plastic from paper with a clear practiced technique that I asked one of the students to show me. Then dishes were stacked on the dish caddy and everyone brushed their teeth at sinks in the hallway. I hadn't brought my toothbrush (but I will tomorrow), but considering the fact that the water doesn't have fluoride, it makes sense that brushing happens a lot. Afterwards, there was a playtime. Because it was raining, play happened inside. Students ran from classroom to classroom, chatting and etc. I returned my tray to the teacher's room (with the chopsticks), then found a group of kids and played with them. I think they were 4th graders. We did cartwheels and arm wrestled. (I failed at doing a cartwheel and let them win, with much visibly emoted effort, at arm wrestling). It was a lot of fun!

After playtime came cleaning time! Cleaning time in Japanese schools is no joke. From the first graders to the sixth graders, everyone is responsible for their own classrooom (though some older kids seem to help the babies). If you've seen Miyazaki's Spirited Away and remember how Chiyo and the other girls cleaned the bathhouse, you have an exact idea of how cleaning is handled here. Kids (first grade and up) actually wash the floors, with washrags, squatting-running in straight lines over the floor. I tried my hand at it too, but my ass was sticking out of my pants as I did the low run (as one of the students kindly told me) so I decided to take up dustpan duty from there. The kids and my Tanto-sensei were very awesome about showing me how to wring out and then hang the washrags, as well as where the dustpan broom was etc (they are much smaller and thinner here). I was cleaning with a class of first graders who kept asking me questions in Japanese that I mostly didn't understand but did try to follow up with in English.

After cleaning time, there was one more class period: my first class of Fifth Graders. The Fifth graders had markedly shorter attention spans than the 6th graders, and were a bit more shy. They also weren't quite as enamored at whacking things with fly swatters as the 6-2 class had been before lunch. This HRT was very active and involved with every aspect of the class: he clearly ran a tight ship and tolerated no nonsense. At the same time, it was also clear he had a warm and friendly relationship with all of his students. He got a kick out of the Obama mask and was quite helpful! The game ended about four minutes before class was over: too little time for my next planned game, too much time for me to just say goodbye. So I ad-libbed an “I like” lesson, reusing the vocabulary I'd taught from the Jikoshoukai. It went moderately well, but not swimmingly. The classroom timing is going to be one of the hardest aspects of this job. I can already tell. But hopefully I'll get better at it!

After that class, the students were leaving. I made sure to cheerfully speak to as many as possible as they left also. This is a fun bunch, and I want to have as good a relationship with them as possible going in. Then it was more free time (oh god no!). I asked some of the teachers in the staff room if there was anything I could do to help, and they said don't worry about it, drink tea and prepare for my next class. Since I'm doing the same lesson for the next week, I really didn't have much to prepare, but I did take the time to do the required self reflection worksheet for my Company. (this is much more complete as a day's reflection, but oh-well).

Then there was a long meeting where teachers sat at their desks, some working, as other teachers shared something about something at lightening fast talking speeds, so I have no real idea what was said. I did my best to try to stay awake, because without the energy and enthusiasm of the kids, my body began to remind me that I'd only had five hours of sleep last night, due to preparing for class.

After the meeting (where the Principal did mention that I had brought candy from America for all of my fellow teachers and thanked me for it!), my Tanto-sensei came by and asked me when my bus left. I told her there was one at 4:35 and one at 5:05. I had pretty much assumed with the Japanese philosophy of “come early, stay late” that I was catching the 5:05 bus, but my Tanto-sensei (probably seeing how utterly bored I was) told me to leave at 4:20. We chatted with Kyoto-sensei and he gave the okay, so I was out at 4:20.

Actually, I wouldn't have minded staying until the 5:00 bus because after the meeting, other teachers began to talk with me. But Tanto-sensei was quite sincere about having me leave on time (she's a sweet woman) and so I left and caught the early bus. As an aside, one of the teachers invited me to come do exercise with the group at 4:30, but as I was wearing a suit and shoes, that wasn't possible. I did agree to come next week with a change of appropriate clothes. So now I have to buy a yoga mat. I'm very glad to be invited though. This is a very nice group of teachers and I like working here!

(I also got the OKAY at the end of the day to take pictures, so next week I'll have some pictures of my kids!)

Tomorrow is another whole new first day. We'll see what the future brings!