Saturday, October 11, 2008

Intro. to My Schools and a Love Footnote to California

Here's the deal, I teach at two high schools out the outskirts of Kagoshima city, Koryo and Higashi.  I go to Koryo on Mondays and Thursdays and Higashi on Tuesdays, Wedsnesdays and Fridays. The first, Koryo High is a notoriously unacademic school, meaning that most of the students will not go on to a university or vocational school after they graduate.  Higashi still doesn't have the greatest academic reputation against the other high schools in the city, but it has an international language course, so students can take foreign languages like French, Spanish, Korean and Chinese in addition to learning English.  

The fact that Koryo is not terribly academic has its perks and downfalls for me, as their teacher.  On the one hand, the teachers are all very relaxed as it seems that there isn't the same pressure on them as there is at other schools to get their students to pass exams for university.  The kids are all much more fun/crazy because they aren't being completely studious all the time and in most of my classes we play a lot of games or I talk about American culture.  However, this means that their English level is incredibly low and so is their incentive to actually listen to me. Whereas at Higashi I can lead some classes by myself without the teacher translating and the students will understand me, at Koryo this is impossible.  Most of them feel, and rightfully so, that learning English is completely unnecessary to whatever job they will get once they graduate.  Ha, I felt the same way about Calculus.  So I have to devise a series of ways to bribe them into listening to me/cooperating...like M&Ms or stickers, which only go so far.  It's not all that bad though, because mostly I feel like I am spending my time joking around with a bunch of rowdy kids, which provides lots of laughs.  

(Sidenote: the teachers translating what I am saying in English into Japanese is incredibly frustrating to me.  In any language class I have ever taken, the teacher stops speaking any English to you pretty early on so you can adjust to the new language.  I feel like often the students don't even listen to me and are simply waiting for the Japanese translation.)
I'm not too sure what is up with these two pictures - Student of the Year circa 1949?
This is my office at Koryo.  Most of the teachers from the school are all in one room together.  The students stay in one room and the teachers are the ones who switch out, which makes sense in its own way, but I always think about my teachers who decorated their classrooms and how growing up I always thought that was a perk of teaching.  
Koryo was built in the sixties and features some pretty rad design.  Currently there are only about 300 students at Koryo and in three years they are going to close it and combine the students with a different school.
In the summer time there were hardly any students around.  At the more academic schools, students come to school all throughout summer to take extra classes and participate in sports and other club activities.  I would wander the empty halls of Koryo and poke into empty rooms.
Higashi! Higashi's students are an utter mix of some the sweetest and most enthusiastic kids and the kids who just completely do not give a fuck.  In Japan it is completely acceptable for kids to sleep in the middle of class (ok, the teachers say it is NOT acceptable, but then why are the students allowed to do it?) and this drives me crazy.  I have exhausted many methods of public humiliation to get the kids to wake up and prevent them from going back to sleep, but for the most part they really just don't give a fuck.  This is the hardest part of teaching for me, dealing with the kids who just can't be bothered to give a shit.  I can understand that on a fundamental level high school probably really sucks for everyone, I really get that and I was there, but please dear god just TRY!  Students in Japan are so trained to need to have the right answer all the time (and there is only one right answer) that they are usually way too afraid to volunteer anything they are not sure of.  

So this is the end-all question.  How do you get high school kids to care? Wow, beats me.  I basically stick to low-level tactics, like bribery and acting like a complete idiot (jumping around, wiggling my body and singing) to at least vaguely keep their attention.
The rather imposing Higashi building.  Let's see, it reminds me of a communist building somewhere in the tropics...
Every school has a Sports Day in September which is like any track and field day we had in elementary school, except that in Japan they are obsessed with marching and there are a few other unique events thrown in.  At Koryo's Sports Day they had a contest that translated to "show your Koryo school spirit" and consisted of the student's seeing who could hold a 20lb sack of rice over their head the longest.  There are many other fun games like tug-of-war and lots of "cheerleading" dances where groups of students from each class make up a dance and compete against each other to see who has the most school spirit.
My students on the bus.  Basically the second they step on the bus on after school the students morph into a group of chattery excited monkeys (completely unrecognizable from their slumber during my class) and start putting on makeup and rolling up their skirts.  At schools in Japan girls are not allowed to wear makeup or jewelry, dye their hair, have long or painted nails or have their skirts above the knee. In some ways I can see how uniforms are a good idea, but in general I have to support freedom of expression here.
The girl on the left is putting on mascara - if only I could understand enough Japanese to know what kind of escapade she was having after school.
Higashi's baseball field/the view out my office window.
The view of the Higashi field before the rain came.
After the rain came.  When it rains, it really rains.  Tropical storm style. 
My office at Higashi.  There are eleven other English teachers and we all share an office together.  It's interesting, at none of my schools is there internet connection in the classrooms or at teacher's desks.  You'd think with all this hype about technology in Japan that it would be more far-reaching.  Maybe my schools are underfunded, who knows.
The view of the volcano from Higashi.

Part II, I love you Santa Cruz, I love you California!

No matter the greatness of the place I find myself residing, my heart will always call for California.  For Ojai, for the Bay Area (ha, and even LA...), for silly tofu sandwiches and bike rides and breakfasts and barbeques on the back porch, theme parties and Farmer's markets with Thai food.  I don't have pictures of all my loves, but here's to you!
Tessa wrote me the most incredible email and it was this part among many others that pulled me straight back to the Storey St. house: "the other night I got wasted on sparkling white wine and made a giant snowflake out of my 2008 election guide.  the economy's fucked, in case you haven't seen the new york times, though i'm sure you have.  the garden is still making sweet tomatoes and the first pineapple guavas of the season are just starting to drop off the bushes."  Thank you my loves, I am thinking of you in "the Naples of the Orient." (as some tourist brochures dub Kagoshima)

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