Sunday, December 04, 2005

Coming late to the Japanese Education party

I know, it's last week's news, and really older news than that. Brent Staples editorial on 11/21 suggested looking to Japan to improve our own schools here in the United States.

When I left you, I had just gotten off the plane in Osaka, a bright-eyed 24-year-old woman, looking for adventure and the exploration of a new culture.

I'm a blonde, blue-eyed, rather blunt person; all qualities that may be appreciated here, but made me stand out in a big way there. Of the hundreds of people in the baggage claim area, I was pretty easy to spot by the dean of the school and the English chairperson with him. I was greeted and whisked away to a Chinese restaurant for my first meal. Shark-fin soup is mucky, and slimy, but I ate it to be polite.

I started teaching three classes of 48-50 students each, ten days later. There were four American English teachers at our school, and about eight Japanese English teachers (we'll just call my school "Japanese Junior/Senior High School," or JJSH for short, okay?).

Classes were not held every day; they were in a block schedule, like at the university. Classes were on a Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday schedule, with electives on Fridays. Students stayed with the same group for the most part; I taught the J3's. These were the equivalent to our ninth graders. The three classes were the A's, B's and C's. This had nothing to do with tracking or their ability, it was just the way the groups happened to be organized.

I'll get back to the tracking/ability issue later.

The students had their own classroom; the teachers were the ones moving from class to class. The English department at our school was the largest one, and we had the largest office. We even had our own secretary. Each teacher had their own desk in the room, but all supplies and so on were shared. There were no cubicles or walls separating the desks. The French and German teacher also had desks in our room. It could be a very noisy place at times, and there was absolutely no privacy.

This was also before computers, so anything that needed to be written up was done by typewriter. There was only one phone in the room, and again, no separation from anyone else when one was using it. Again, this was 1988-1991, so I'm sure things have changed somewhat.

Brent Staples talked about "Teacher focus groups" and study groups, but that didn't happen at our school. Of course, I was an outsider, but my experience was that we were told what to teach, and expected to do it with the resources available. Hmmm... kinda the same way things are done here. I didn't see a lot of collaboration, except when writing the final exam. All the students took the same test, so we did create that together.

I'm going to talk about the student teachers I observed in Japan next time.

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