Emily Robinson: Volunteering at an Elementary School

My first instinct, after learning about the CIP project, was to join a club or other group activity. After exploring my options further, however, I ended up going back to my childhood for reference. The Community Involvement Project I ended up becoming involved in was volunteering at an elementary school in the Shugakuin neighborhood of Kyoto. This particular school ends up being host to an unusually large population of international students, despite being an otherwise average local elementary. Because of the significant amount of students who end up attending with little to no background in Japanese, however, they end up providing special resources, including an “International Class”. This project was incredibly personal to me, since as a child I had not only lived in Kyoto for a period of time, but also attended this elementary school as a foreign student who spoke no Japanese. Remembering what it was like being in this situation where I could neither understand nor communicate, I wanted to go back under new circumstances, and hopefully help where I could. The specifications of my volunteering turned out to be more one on one than I had imagined, with me going to individual student’s classrooms and doing any translation that was needed. Although sometimes, when things were slow, it felt more like providing moral support than language. I was there for two class periods every Wednesday afternoon, and it soon became a very regular part of my routine.

To be honest, going into it, I was not expecting to learn very much that I had not already been exposed to. The classroom environment was not new, and given my somewhat limited interaction with teachers, branching out in that direction was difficult. What I had not anticipated, however, was being able to view the curriculum through a new, language proficient perspective. I was particularly struck by the emphasis on expressing oneself publicly in Japan, that was never highlighted through my education in the States. Even from a very young age, the format of public speaking, and the frequency with which students are required to stand and speak in front of the class is significant. Even things such as answering or asking questions during class require that students stand up to speak. The intonation patterns too, are ones that I recognized from speeches given by adults, and the way these skills must have become ingrained can be clearly seen taking root in the classroom. In terms of my own language practice, despite the many years I have spent studying, it was humbling to enter a classroom and see the gaps in my own proficiency. While it was not the setting for studying myself, it served as a good reminder that there are always ways to improve my language, even going back over the basics.

It is more difficult to become a member of a group in which you do not have a place. I found this reality reflected not only in my own position as an American volunteer for foreign students in a Japanese school, but also in that of the international students themselves. The less Japanese a student understands, the more difficult it is for the teacher to communicate the requirements of the class, and unsurprisingly, the less it happens. In turn, the less the student expects to be involved in the classroom and the less they make an effort to conform. It becomes a cycle difficult to break, and while I had been a part of it myself, never before had I been conscious of the effects. While volunteering at the elementary school provided no great revelations on how to fix this, I do like to think that it was two hours a week when a student who might otherwise not be able to talk all day could communicate, and for once not feel like the only odd one out in the classroom.

The activity I chose for my CIP was not group based. It did not help me make friends, or improve my language skills. But it was something not only that I was interested in, but that was very personal to me and my own experiences. For those first looking into options for the CIP, I think a first instinct is usually to seek out an activity that will allow a lot of social interaction, or deep involvement with an established group. These are both important things, but I would also encourage students to search out something they are passionate about, or that they have a personal connection with. Without the investment needed to make it a part of your regular routine, regardless of the superficial value of your chosen project, the effects are null if you’re not there and interested. Ultimately, each CIP can be what you make of it, so choose something you want to make something out of for yourself.

4 thoughts on “Emily Robinson: Volunteering at an Elementary School

  1. I think that it’s incredibly special that you chose not only to return to a place from your childhood, but also to be a part of kids’ lives whose shoes you’ve been in before. Were there any teachers that remember you from your time there? I’m also curious to know how you ended up growing up in Kyoto for a time, if that’s not too much to ask.

    • Unfortunately, there were no teachers from when I was there. It’s already been 9 years since my recent stay there. And to briefly answer your other question, I lived in Kyoto for several periods (none over a year) due to my father’s work.

  2. Hi Emily! Your experience volunteering at your former school seems to serve a particular reflective purpose. It is very interesting to see that although the school itself does have resources to help integrate these foreign students into Japanese society, the effort behind it is not as strong as one would expect. For example, that negative feedback cycle that you have mentioned, were there any other teachers or volunteers who recognize this problem and want to fix it? You mentioned that while you were there you did not have much chance to branch out to the teachers, but what about other Japanese elementary students? Did anyone approach you by themselves?

    • While they do have the resources for foreign students, the school is by no means international, and in many ways I don’t think it recognizes the cycle. It’s definitely not intentional, just a lack of experience, in my opinion. I never met any other volunteers, and the teacher in charge of “International classes” travels to several different schools. So there also seems to be a bit of a ‘short staffing’ issue on that side. Other elementary school students did approach me, but it depended on the age how they did it. Younger students were more taken aback at a foreigner speaking Japanese, but adjusted relatively quickly. Older students seemed to be more comfortable with me. I recently had an in depth discussion with one little boy about why Jurassic Park was a terrible idea.