Wednesday, September 26, 2007

No Sloppy Joes?

School lunch in Japan is much different than in Wisconsin. First of all, there is no lunch room. Students stay in their classrooms all day and the teachers rotate. When it’s lunch time (12:45pm), the students assigned to lunch responsibilities put on these like full body cloth suits with matching caps.
Awww, look - even elementary students can do it!
Scoopin` and servin` the salmon rice - yum!

I’m guessing this has some sort of sanitary purpose, but really I think they’re going for style points. Some students get the lunch, and set it up; others serve the lunch to their peers. This is particularly entertaining at the elementary school level. All students eat school lunch – no brown bagging here! Students wait until everyone has been served, say Itadakimasu! (roughly: I’ll start!), then all begin to eat together. I travel around and go to a new classroom everyday… some classes remain in the rows and are pretty quiet, while others group into fours and fives and are loud and obnoxious (good for them!). There is also classical or Disney music playing the whole time. I’ve heard that at other schools there is rock n roll music playing during lunch. We got jipped. At the end of lunch, everyone brings up their own tray and cleans and separates it all. Garbage disposal in Japan is so intense it necessitates its own blog, so I’ll just leave it at that for now.
Here are some pics of school lunches. Now granted, the school lunch menu in the US has changed a great deal since MANY of ya’ll were in elementary and middle school, but especially within the past 5 to 10 years, I believe there has been a really positive change to make school lunches more well balanced and less preserved. It’s tough to do when you have to balance not only a well rounded meal with all the food groups, but also steer clear of preservatives and uber- (trans)fatty foods, while maintaining taste for the kiddos, not to mention keep costs reasonable for students of all demographics! Props to all school nutritionists world-wide for their efforts! That being said, I think Maebashi is doing a pretty great job with their menu. There’s even a poster in the hall proving that eating good foods make you smart!

So without further adieu; school lunches in Gunma:-3.7% milk comes with every meal.
This was some kind of chicken and veggie soup with rice, a scrambled egg-esque side with who knows what sauce, and orange and gelatin dessert in a syrup.
This was probably my favorite so far: Rice with a mild Japanese curry that had veggies and beef, picked cukes with salt and pepper, a little baggie of dried fishies that you pop like peanuts, and a strawberry mouse dessert.
Rice yet again, with a side of fried veggies and shrimp which you pour some of that soy sauce on, picked cukes and onions, and miso soup (love it!) with radishes, carrots, pork, onions, and konnyaku (like a firmer Jell-o that is translucent with black specks in it that kind of feels like a noodle, but is always much thicker and blockier).
Ramen noodles with pork, fish cakes, tiny hard boiled eggs (curious as to what kind of bird it came from!), and veggie soup to put them in. A side of fried mashed potatoes, veggie (carrots, cukes, and my favorite: bean sprouts!) salad with dressing, and an awesome puff pastry with whipped cream and oranges in the center.
Minestrone soup (tomato broth, shelled noodles, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, chicken, oregano = deeeeliscous!), hunk of bagged bread, breaded pork cutlet with piece of cold nasty cheese, salad with cukes, onions, seaweed and clear noodles.
A cut of cooked salmon, rice, nikujaga (Japanese style stew with carrots, onion, chicken?, potatoes, somethin’ green, and konnyaku), and a side of picked cukes and bamboo shoots?.
A different type of nikujaga with potatoes, clear noodles, carrots, chicken?, and thick broth, rice with that dominant little red packet of flavoring, edamame beans and corn, and two little dried and open mouthed fishies (you eat everything but the head, and it was pretty tasty!).
Bon apetit! or, for all you Japanese speakers out there, Itadakimasu!!!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

I swear I have a job!

My grandpa is very concerned that I came all the way to Japan JUST to have fun, eat good food, and meet new people. He’s not too far off, but I am indeed employed and do some work every now and then. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t believe I’m actually working until he saw it himself – but a blog entry will have to suffice.

The truth is, I can hardly call what I’m doing, “work”. Something so enjoyable can’t be work, right? I don’t have half the stress I’m sure my fellow first year professional teachers are experiencing or bear the responsibilities so many of them have of running their very own classrooms. I am, after all, an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT). So what does being an “assistant” in a Maebashi classroom require of me?

It varies from class to class and from lead Japanese teacher to teacher. My base school is a middle school where I work with two JTE’s (Japanese Teachers of English).

This is a pic from opening ceremonies at my middle school. I had to give a speech to all the teachers and students... my attempt at getting them to say "Good Morning" back to me after I said it failled miserably... the gym was dead silent. I did it in both English and Japanese and am pretty sure everyone just still thought I was speaking English when I was speaking Japanese because my pronunciation is SO BAD!

I have no idea how one of those teachers obtained that position, as he speaks English in the classroom maybe 5% of the time and generally understands what I am saying 25% of the time. Despite the fact that we sit RIGHT next to each other, we say maybe 20 sentences to each other all day (this includes our discussions about the lessons that we’re about to do in 3 minutes). Needless to say, I get most of my information from my other JTE. He’s super genki (energetic) and great to teach with. It’s a great example of team teaching as we usually get a chance to discuss the lessons before the class and he is very receptive to any suggestions I have. He’s always prepared and makes sure I feel comfortable with everything as well. Unfortunately, at the middle school level, much work is done out the text book which, surprise, surprise, is pretty dry.

Standard lessons for all three middle school grades generally go:

· English greeting: Good morning, everybody (students reply Good Morning Miss Sarah) How are you doing today (I am fine thank you, and you?) Then I usually say something crazy and all the kids are really confused until I ask them to, “please sit down”

· Sing an English song, which so far has included: Camptown Races (yep, the doo-dah, doo-dah song… Japanese kids hate it as much as me, but I try to make it fun), I Want it That Way by the Backstreet Boys, We Will Rock You by Queen, and my pick for the 8th graders: Help! by the Beatles. I really hope I get to keep picking out the songs “we” sing (very few students actually sing during this activity – namely just avoid eye contact and stare at lyrics; despite my pleas to SING LOUDER!): good karaoke practice!

· Read excerpt from text aloud

· Highlight and pronounce key terms and have students repeat (1-3 times)

· Read excerpt again, having students repeat as a class after each sentence (in a class of 30, about 5 are actually reading, and the rest are mumbling nonsense)

· Students pair up and take turns reading sentences to each other or together

· We come together as a class and take volunteers or call on students to read aloud

o Extrinsic motivation (stickers) are always given to students who volunteer. I hate extrinsic motivation. I have been given the duty of handing them out and getting them a prize for when they fill their sticker card. Ugh!

There are exceptions in the routine, but the most enjoyable thus far at the middle school level has been my role in the higher level 3rd (8th) grade English class. They have written a script for their version of Cinderella, and I am helping ‘direct’ and be lines and acting coach. The students understand me and take direction very well (a far stretch from our 6th graders Sundiata play, Tony!) – plus, they’ve got a great sense of humor and are fun! The first graders (6th grade) are the most challenging for me because their basis of English knowledge is so low, that not only are any directions I give useless, my sense of humor is completely negated and all I’m left with is body language, which is either not entertaining, doesn’t help explain, or another chance for them to make fun of me. It’s hard to connect there.

This pic is of my elementary school brass band. All schools have a brass band - and they're pretty freakin' awesome!
A pic of my other elementary school - absolutely massive by my standards, but the teachers consider it a "small" school. And yes, that student is on a unicycle. They can check them out to use during recesses and after school.

Onto the shougakkos (elementary schools). I go to one elementary school every Thursday and another every Friday. The staff at both schools has been incredible to me and do everything they can to reach out and be helpful and kind. Once again, that nasty language barrier makes it pretty tough to connect with staff or know what’s going on… ever – but it’s a good vibe from both schools and I’ve taken it upon myself to get into the classrooms or playground whenever I’m not teaching. Everyday there is a designated cleaning time, so it’s cool to connect with the kids and staff then by helping out sweeping and moving desks around (yes, Tony – school cleaning time in all public schools!

That’s totally gonna be my line back in Madison… “Well in Japan, students are required to clean everyday. There is no janitorial staff”). So, kiddos sweep, hands and knees wipe floors, the whole nine yards. I really like this routine… I think it creates (or maybe forces) much more respect from students for their school as well as a sense of classroom community and individual responsibility.

Teaching in the shougakkos has been… interesting. I knew in the States that I would never teach below 4th grade. But here, 1st and 2nd grade are actually really fun. Good for a few hours at least. Nice change of pace from the middle school because the kids are super excited to learn English. Apparently saying numbers and fruits three times is the coolest thing in the world. Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes rocks too. Other classes have been hit or miss. Some teachers have an outline for the class, some just say “go ahead – teach”. I never know until that day. So, I always have to have something prepared. The majority of my first lessons are a “self-intro”, which I’ve gotten pretty good at – visual aids and all. At one of my elementary schools, I get to teach 2 Eric Carle books. It’s cool designing those lessons, but I need more support in some classes because: I don’t speak Japanese!!!

In short: the job and students are really great and a lot of fun. HOWEVER, there are some major frustrations. Backtrack to me not knowing what’s being said around me 95% of the time. That’s tough. You know what? We’re going bullet style on these bad boys:

Work related frustrations:

· Not knowing school profile and useful information about students

o I get snippets here and there about students with cognitive disorders or personal interests, but overall I don’t know the demographics of students or information about the schools in general.

· Not knowing lessons and therefore not being able to plan or effectively develop lessons on English.

· Teaching incorrect English because I am handed a script to read. I.e. JTE says, “What you like color?” and I respond, or students ask in unison, “Where come you from?” or having students list their “rikes” and “no rikes” on the board.

· Coping with hopelessly shy students, obnoxiously loud students, blatantly rude students (that I don’t understand and just know they’re making fun of me), apparently shy students, or comatose students.

· Adapting to the varied English ability levels of over 30 students in each class.

· Not being able to meaningfully connect with students or staff

o Staff is so sweet to me – but we namely just share food and daily greetings. There’s so much more I want to know about my coworkers. A key component in my educational philosophy is the importance of getting to know students personally and academically through the individual students. I had all middle school students fill out a worksheet and took pictures of them in hopes of getting to know them better, but that dang language barrier and the fact that I have 319 middle school kids, and over 600 elementary school kids makes it near impossible. That doesn’t mean I can’t connect with students or staff… it just makes it more difficult and I might have to come to terms with the fact that I might not reach them ALL.

· I still don’t know what happens during some mystery time periods.

o I know what classes I am teaching by the day of… but then there is some free time in the mornings or afternoons when I don’t know where other teachers are or what exactly I’m supposed to be doing. Last week I went to one of my classes to find nobody was there. By the end of the day I found out there was a school election. Good to know. Teachers run busily in and out, and I have no clue where or when.

· I live a 30 minute bike ride from one of my schools. I sweat from existing right now in the summer, so you can imagine how I feel when I get there. Fast forward to the winter. Upon telling other teachers and JTE’s in the region I only have a bike – they act very surprised and ALL tell me about how cold and windy Maebashi gets in the winter. The last thing I want is car payments/responsibilities/problems/deaths… still trying to sort this one out.

· Teachers stay until an average of 8pm. I feel like a putz being the first to leave at 6pm. Enough’s enough though… a girl’s gotta eat!

· Having snotty handed elementary schoolers grab me, poke my hands, or motion to “kancho” (literally means enema… poke you up the butt with index fingers!) me.

The positives FAR outweigh the negatives, but I had to include the reality of the job and how I’m feeling. Like any job – it ain’t easy! BUT, one of the main (uninspiring) reasons I wanted to teach is so no two days were the same and I’d always have a good “how was your day?” story. Hit me up for one!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Orientationed out? Doubt it!

After Tokyo orientation – I thought I’d be orientationed out. Even though I was looking forward to seeing some buddies from Tokyo, I was not looking forward to sitting for nearly 8 hours straight and just listening to people for 3 days straight. Turned out to be not nearly as mundane as Tokyo and way more applicable because it was just JET ALTs (Japan Exchange and Teaching program Assistant Language Teachers) living in Gunma. There are over 30 JETs in our prefecture (like a state) and many more ALT’s. Last week we had an English seminar where we met several more ALTs that are not part of the JET Programme, but are ALT’s in Maebashi. I don’t know exactly how the JET application process and selection works, but the vast majority of JETs I’ve met are really well rounded, incredible individuals that I have no doubt will rock at their jobs and lives in Japan. As for some of the other ALTs… I’m not so sure.

Anyway, many second and third year JET’s are on a committee that hosted the orientation. Lots of useful and relevant living and teaching info. The experienced JETs are all really cool too and really made us feel comfortable and are more than willing to help us out.

The first night of the orientation, we had a big reception dinner and lots of important people whose names and positions I don’t know were there to show us a good time. I think this is the prefectural head of foreign affairs. Our orientation was covered by the local news, and I was totally on it drinking sake with this woman. My principal was all excited to tell me that when we came back to school after holiday.

We had bento boxes for lunch every day. TONS of surprises – some better than others. This is a pic of one of ‘em. That pink and white thing in the middle was my first experience with “fish cake”. It’s like a gelatin, and really creeped me out – but tasted better than expected with a name like fish cake. The picked plum in the rice was awesome, as was the mysterious meat ball in spaghetti sauce. The actual spaghetti however, was covered in mayo (booo!) That lil yellow blob you see is eggs: they’re kind of scrambled, but way lighter and sweeter and American scrambled eggs. I find it in my bento and dinner sushi boxes all the time, and have actually developed quite a liking for it… in moderation.

What’s an orientation to Japan without karaoke?

On the third day of orientation, we got to do some cultural workshops. I chose to learn about karate, koto & shakuhatchi, and shiatsu. This guy could kill you, and smile afterwards.

This guy has been playing the koto for over 35 years. He tried so hard to get me to able to play, but all I got out of it was a pathetic little whoosh. He was super excited about it though. These women are playing the beautiful stringed instrument called a shakuhatchi. Seriously really cool sound, and when they play all together, it’s really beautiful. They even let us all play them and learn the “Sakura” song. They were all like, “oh, it’s so easy, even my 7 yr old daughter can play it!” But then I got up there and proved them wrong.

Best part of the whole orientation: shiatsu (which literally translates to finger massage). I think it’d be sweet to ‘master’ this art form and bring it back as a little side business or I guess a bonus attribute for future love-interests (wink-wink). This session got cut short a bit in order to end on time, RIGHT before I was about to get me a foot massage. My partner Kristine rocked the shiatsu the rest of the time, but refused to give me a foot massage. The shiatsu sensei (teacher) came back after our orientation finished up to offer the massage to me then! I was astounded at his generosity – what a sweetheart! Unfortunately, I had to jet – but I DO have his meishi (business card, which all Japanese procedurally give out to new acquaintances) and might take him up on some lessons sometime.

I also ventured up to the 30th floor of our prefectural government building to get this amazing view of the city. It’s weird, because it definitely doesn’t feel this big at all when you’re just riding around on your E.T. bike. It definitely puts it into perspective.

Obon Holiday = Sushi, Karaoke, City and Beach Days for me!

Okay, so, August 13-17th was the national Obon holiday in Japan. From what I understand, this is a time when Japanese may or may not get off work to go visit their deceased relatives and pay their respects. I think all public employees have off – so no school for us! We had Gunma orientation August 15-17th, but that gave us a good long weekend to hang out and cover some ground. Check it out!

I had ridden my bike past this sweet sushi go round like place a few times and was dying to go – so I made everyone come to my side of town and walk there (apparently a 30 min. walk). It was definitely worth it as all plates were about $1. As you can see, you can get every kind of sushi and sushi roll known to man, as well as fries, beer (not $1!), and other random foods here and there.

A hamburger-esque “sushi” plate came around – so we peer pressured Jake into eating it. It was apparently as bad as it looked. He drew the line at the mini-hot dog sushi however.

Post sushi, I finally had my first karaoke experience. Your group gets its own private room with this massive electronic touch pad that has all the songs in it. You pay a flat fee for all you can drink (apple juice) and sing until it closes. If you can’t tell, we’re rocking out to “Land Down Under”… most hilarious videos to accompany the songs as well. I.e. – One of the Bon Jovi songs we did had a girl rolling around on a beach… the entire 2 minutes and 46 seconds of the song.

On Monday, we met up with a Japanese friend who showed us around the Shibuya area of Tokyo. Even though it’s in the city, trees lined the streets and there were some beautiful parks.

This is the parliament building. I tried to understand their governing system, to no avail. Nice building though!

There was this really cute bench at the park that was in memoriam of a couple that had been married 75 years. Can you imagine?

I really liked these little ‘restaurants’ and bars that were below the highways and railways. Really cool vibe in that area at night. Met a few really interesting people in our lil pub crawl.

The next day, we headed off to the Kanagawa prefecture to Karakaru beach. I had originally suggested we go to an onsen (hot spring), until my Japanese friend called me an idiot and made fun of me for wanting to go to a hot spring in 105 degree weather. It was still ridiculously hot and the Pacific Ocean water was warmer than bath water – but it was still a blast and we met a bunch of Kaz’s friends who were so kind and so much fun! There was even an MTV beach house there… playing trance music. Nice!

Chris, Charly, Yuki, Yuri, and Yuya.