It’s a little hard to give you all an update on my CIP since the school has been on break for the last few weeks. Instead, I’d like to talk about my observations of Japanese high school life and the high school system, since I can go into more detail in an English blog post.
I wish I could sit in on (and understand!) some of the non-English language classes, if only to see if their as boring as people tell me they are. I know I already mentioned this in my last blog post, but it really shocked me when I asked my high schoolers what their favorite subjects were, and they looked at me like this was an inconceivable notion. They truly don’t seem to enjoy any of their classes, and the kind of system that shuts people down like that is pretty concerning.
Though, of course, I’ve heard equally bad things about the American public education system, so I should really stop judging the Japanese system. Growing up, one of my childhood friends was too smart for the classes he was in, and his boredom and frustration caused him to just give up on doing schoolwork altogether, until he had terrible grades when really he should have had amazing ones. But the thing is, people like that, in the U.S., can get a second chance. He eventually wound up at community college, got a 4.0 there for two years, and transferred into UC Berkeley. Frankly, he saved a ton of money on tuition for the first two years, and now he’ll get a degree from a world class university. Not too shabby.
People here don’t seem to have those kinds of chances. There’s not a lot of room for alternative paths. It makes me think about the Ghibli movie, Whisper of the Heart, where the main character, Shizuku, decides not to focus on schoolwork and to pursue her dreams instead. She’s lucky enough to have parents who encourage that kind of thinking, but even so they warn her that she will have no one to blame but herself if not getting the right test scores ruins her life from then on. And her sister gets angry because she believes that you only get options in life if you play by the rules—only by getting into a top notch high school will the main character have multiple doors open to her.
On another note, one other thing that really took me aback was the discovery that the class with whom I’ve interacted the most, a group of middle school girls whose English teacher is actually an American guy from Wisconsin, is considered the advanced/special English track class. That surprised me for two reasons. First, honestly, they didn’t seem that much better than some of the younger students in the normal track. They knew more vocabulary, but they practiced talking about nearly the same things as the younger kids. Maybe that’s not something to be blamed on them, but on the course syllabus and the rigidity of the way the Japanese education system teaches English. Second, the girls had always struck me as extremely cheerful and outgoing, almost to the point of obnoxiousness (like I said, discipline in the middle school section is pretty lax) but it turns out that they, as a class, are kind of outcasts at school. During a break between classes, most students flooded the hallways, chatting with friends at lockers or visiting friends in other classrooms. But these girls all stayed in their one little classroom, talking to each other. When I asked one of them why they did not also go out into the hallways, she told me that they don’t really have other friends. Very sad!
I would also be interested in just sitting in on a Japanese class to see how the atmosphere of it compares to that of those in the US! Like how interactive is it, or if it is mostly just the teacher talking.
As far as the English instruction is concerned, have you ever tried asking the English teacher? Like if it is possible to put a greater emphasis on speaking or something? I’m sure the course syllabus is limited to whatever the school and the government’s educational department dictate, but if an American teacher clearly knows that more speaking would improve their English, wouldn’t it be beneficial then to emphasize it more? I’ve heard from Japanese friends [and my host family] how English in Japanese school is emphasized with grammar and vocabulary, and then there is not as many chances to practice speaking. I think that is one of the best ways to learn though! And at least for me from the point of view of learning Japanese, speaking informally is the most helpful. It’s difficult to naturally grasp grammar and using memorized vocabulary if you don’t use it actively in conversation.
Just curious also, but is there group work at all in your English classes? Like to practice conversation?
I feel like I’m not close enough to the teachers at this point to make significant suggestions about changes…plus I thought I had heard that one of the reasons instruction here is so bad is because there are very set standards or curriculums that are not well designed. Of course, I work at a private school, so maybe it would be different, but even so they have to cater to the standardized English tests that everyone has to take before college and so on. I wish, though!
The group work stuff varies from class to class. The more advanced classes were sent around to ask each other questions and then present their friends’ answers to the class at the end, but the younger kids all just sit at their desks and interact with the teacher.
It is probably very interesting to see a comparison of Japanese and American schools. I don’t know much about Japanese education, but from what I’ve heard it sounds like standardized tests are the only major factor that determines what colleges you can or can’t get into. It also takes some students two to three years to pass these tests and if you fail this test your dubbed as a “Ronin”. It is similar to the SAT or ACT, but at least in the states there are other factors that colleges consider when admitting students, such as college essays.
Have you asked your high schooler’s about these entrance exams? If so, how did they respond?
P.S. I know who your talking about!
Hahaha it’s so funny that you can identify him based on that description. But yeah, some of my high school kids actually had to cancel our sessions because they were gearing up for their proficiency exams. I saw some vocab sheets they were learning from and the vocab is SO random.
Yeah! I’m also curious how teaching methods may differ in Japan when compared to to the US. I feel that in most of my classes back in the US my teachers encouraged us to ask questions, come up with ‘out of the box’ ideas, creative solutions, and at times to learn through experience and failure. Did you feel your teacher(s) practiced some of these ideas or leaned toward a different direction (like was it more of a set system for learning or versatile enough for discussion)?
Oh and can you please give me an example on what did you found rigid about the syllabus? I’m curious how your teacher decided to tackle teaching English…
Actually, English class is probably one of the few places where Japanese students are encouraged to ask questions, since their teachers are trying to get them to practice speaking. The rigidity comes in more in the sense that the topic around which those questions are set is chosen by the teacher. For instance some of my students did an exercise once where the teacher was like, “ask each other what you like to do in you spare time.” So in that sense the topic was set, but the students did at least get to choose their answers freely and so on…