Emily Robinson: Volunteering at an Elementary School

This year, I was able to continue volunteering at the same local elementary school for the duration of my time in Japan. A product of its proximity to Kyoto University, there are a number of foreign students who end up attending. My volunteer position at the elementary school was to help several of these with their Japanese, and translate during class time anything they didn’t understand. I was able to go for two hours in the afternoon, every Tuesday.

Thanks to the foundation formed within the school last semester, it was easy to fall into a routine. Whereas last semester I was often moved between different classes, this semester I was able to focus my efforts on helping one student more consistently. This was incredibly rewarding not only in terms of forming a connection, but also in terms of being able to see the improvement in a student’s Japanese, and use of new words as time went on. There was also a sense of satisfaction from the other members of the class becoming used to my presence.

Though many of the roadblocks from last semester had worked themselves out by the time one started, I think one of the things I continued to have some trouble with was the greeting protocol in the teacher’s room. My administrative contact was largely with the vice principal, but as she is a very busy person it was difficult to determine at what points it was appropriate to stop in and ask about class placements for the date, in order to ensure that I was going to the right student for the day. In this sense, I consider it one of my failings in the context of the CIP that I was not better able to gain a grasp of these interactions. On the other hand, I feel that one thing I was able to make great progress one was the protocol for making phone calls, and otherwise arranging appointments.

In terms of the activity itself, the fact that I was interacting primarily with foreign students meant that it was not especially conducive to inclusion in a larger community. Additionally, since the common language was English, it was less practice in Japanese than many other CIP activities. The fact that it required me to break down the Japanese into more simple forms, and help not only with school vocabulary, but also often with the more casual terms used by classmates, meant that it offered an interesting breadth of content not found within the KCJS campus. As was the case last semester, it was a poignant experience to observe the interactions between the foreign students, and their classmates, who were often divided in their willingness to accept the foreign student as one of their own. While the majority of students were ready to help the foreign students, there were occasionally those who felt uncomfortable, or would actively make negative comments towards them, relying on the other party’s incomplete understanding of the language.

I feel that this is an issue of exposure, as many local elementary school students have limited, if any prior experience with foreigners, particularly those who might speak Japanese. I think that this is a useful example as well, as it indicates that the ability to speak Japanese is not an innate skill, possessed only by native Japanese people, and therefore if the foreign students are given the opportunity, they too can become fully involved with the Japanese school system and their classmates.

Because I was, for a period of time, a student at this elementary school in my own youth, there was an added element of surrealism. Considering how their time in Japan, attending this school, will affect the future paths of many of these foreign students only served to further solidify the hope that my time with them would help at least in part with the difficulties of not being able to understand one’s surroundings.

In regards to the CIP program in general, my advice to future KCJS students would be to look into activities you are interested in. The volunteer I chose was a good fit because it combined working with children, volunteering, and the added emotional connection to a nostalgic place in Kyoto. Attending my CIP activity every week was not a chore, but rather a break from the stress of the program, which in my opinion is an ideal. If you can find something that does not serve to further stress, but rather relieve some of it even for a short period, I think that is an activity worth pursuing.

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.