A French teacher in Japan

Friday, July 28, 2006

Just one more thing...

If you're interested in seeing 2 videos that I made, the links are below. The first video is about the experience in general and the second is about our school visits.

Japan--Impressions and Memories

School Visits in Aizuwakamatsu

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The End and How to Read This Blog

So I've come to the end of this blog. This was an amazing trip (think I mentioned that before) and I'm so very grateful to JFMF and the Japanese government for giving me this opportunity.

If you want to read this blog from the beginning, scroll down until you see "Archives" on the right and click on June. The June entries were done before I left and the July entries are about the trip itself. And to read the entries in order, you start from the bottom of the page and work your way up. Strange, I know, if you're reading the whole thing, but that's the way these things work. Oh, and if you're reading this at school, the pictures may be blocked (at least they might be at my school), so check it out at home!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

June 29--Departure Day

People were on about 7 or 8 different flights back to the states, so departures were staggered throughout the day. I was on the very last bus, which wasn't scheduled to leave the hotel until 2 p.m.

Five people from our group decided to take a morning excursion to Ueno Park, which sort of reminded me of Central Park in NYC. It was Steve's idea to go see the peace memorial. A man had found the flame from the atomic bomb burning in his uncle's house in Hiroshima. He decided to keep the flame burning. In 1988, it was merged with a flame from Nagasaki and this memorial was created to remind people that atomic weapons should never be used again. It was a beautiful display and I'm glad that I saw it.

We walked around the park a bit and saw quite a few homeless people. It struck me that I really hadn't seen many before today.

I'm happy that I got to see this park. It's huge and it's a peaceful spot in the middle of such a huge city.

We returned to the hotel and all that was left was the return trip to the U.S. As we were leaving the hotel, the employees and JFMF staff lined up to wave good-bye, just as they had done with each departure of the day. This is a symbol of the hospitality and politeness of this extraordinary country and I will never forget it!

June 27-28--Back to Tokyo

This morning we left the ryokan and took the bullet train back to Tokyo. It was a nice trip, just as the previous one was.

We got back to Tokyo around 2 p.m. and we got our same rooms back in the hotel! Now that's organization! JFMF, ever helpful, had scales and tape measures at their desk in the lobby so that we can make sure our suitcases aren't overweight or oversized before the flight home on Thursday. A few of us went shopping for those last-minute souvenirs and had dinner near the hotel.

Wednesday was our last full day before departure. All of the groups did a presentation about their time in their respective cities. Some groups were really creative! We showed a presentation put together by Jose and Laura A., I think, talked about some of the important aspects of Aizu and sang a cute song to the tune of "12 Days of Christmas". It was interesting to see the similarties and differences in everyone's experiences.

Wednesday night was the "Sayonara Buffet". It was very similar to the Welcome reception dinner that we had at the beginning of the trip. There were a few speeches, some videos from the groups, a martial arts demonstration and even a little magic show. The group coordinators came as well, so we got to say goodbye to Meg, who was an incredible person to have as our leader--patient, funny, knowledgeable and so much more! The evening was kind of bittersweet. I think that we're all ready to go home, but it's sad leaving new friends and this wonderful country.

After the dinner, our group had a "final farewell" get-together in Nick's room. It was a fun evening!

June 26--Last day in Aizu / Ryokan

Sadly, this was our last day in Aizuwakamatsu. I'm just about ready to go home, but I know that I will miss this place.

This morning we went back to Second Junior High to meet with parents. About a dozen parents came to the meeting and it was a question and answer session. I thought it was interesting that the school administrators didn't stay for the meeting so that the parents would feel free to say whatever they were thinking and criticize if they wanted to.

This PTA seems to function a lot like the ones at home. They do things for the school, like buying plants and doing occasional fundraisers. They had the same concerns about their kids that American parents have. Their biggest complaint about the school was that the school doesn't provide school lunch.

After the meeting, we had a nice lunch, did some souvenir shopping and, sadly, said good-bye to our interpreter, Naoko. She went back to her home in Hiroshima for a few days before her next job. We all love her intelligence, sweet dispostion and patience and we were sad to see her go.

After lunch, we went to a place where they make aka-bekos, or red bulls, one of the handicrafts for which the Aizu region is known. We learned how these bobble-head creatures are made and we each got to paint our own aka-beko, which was a lot of fun!

Next, it was on to the sake brewery. As I mentioned before, Aizu is known for its sake. Our guide was a very jovial man who took us through the sake-making process and of course we got to sample the product.

Following the brewery, we went to a Japanese inn, a ryokan, where there is a hot springs spa. Our rooms are traditional Japanese rooms with tatami mats. I'm sharing a room with Ellen and Yona and we have a lovely view of the mountains and of Aizu.

We had a beautiful dinner (is there any other kind in Japan?) with so many dishes! Our group had a our own room and after dinner, we did a little karaoke. This was my first experience with karaoke, and it just solidified my knowledge that I cannot sing! But it was fun even so.

When we returned to our room, our futons had been laid out on the floor for us. So cozy! I have to admit that I didn't try the hot springs baths. In Japan, you go into the baths completely naked (men and women segregated) and I just decided that I could forego that experience this time!

Fun with Food!

Our host families returned us to the hotel around 4:00 and it seems that everyone had a great experience. Several of us go together to share our stories and we ended up going to a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant. I'm from a small town, so that might have something to do with my fascination with this place! It was such a fun meal and so simple! We sat down at the counter which encircled the conveyor belt and the chefs' work area. The plates of sushi went by and if you saw something that you wanted, you picked it up. The prices were according to the color of the plates. A sign on the wall showed how much each color was. At the end of the meal, you signaled the one of the waitresses who came over, added up your plates and presented you with the bill. Kind of like a cafeteria or automat, but the conveyor belt just made it fun!

June 25--Homestay Day 2

Today was a busy day! First, Hina got dressed in all her Cougar garb, which was very sweet! She also borrowed one her mom's purses and I saw that she took along a few of the Hershey kisses that I had brought! After breakfast we met up with Akemi, Kazu and Beth and we all went to a kind of little tourist village, I guess, where there were shops and restaurants. It was a hugely popular place, very crowded on this Sunday.

The main attraction was our lunch of soba noodles and tempura. We got to watch men making the buckwheat noodles from scratch. We were supposed to eat the noodles using a leek for a utensil--even more difficult than chopsticks! We shopped a little bit and then went on to our next destination!

We went to a beautiful place where the river had cut a deep gorge into the rock. We crossed a suspension bridge which was a little scary since it moved a lot! On the other side, there was a stairway down, then another one up to a shrine. The natural beauty of this whole area is amazing.

Next, Miho, Hina and I went to a hot springs area (there are lots of these around Aizu) and we put our feet in the naturally warm water--it felt good after the walking we had done!

I received several gifts from Miho and Hina, but the best gift of all was their hospitality and kindness. This was one of the highlights of my trip.


When we got back to the apartment, Hina put in the "Phantom of the Opera" DVD (the most recent one) and we watched while she also showed me her sticker collection. A favorite word--"Cuuute!". The apartment, as I said, is very nice. There is an entryway where you leave your shoes (there were guest slippers for me), a small kitchen, a dining room, living room, 2 bedrooms, toilet room (cool toilet AGAIN!) and bathroom. The most surprising room was one that had been specially outfitted for Miho's grand piano. It was soundproofed and had a double door.

Miho prepared a feast for us. Her friends, Akemi and Fazu, came down with my friend Beth and they brought food as well. Hina made name tags for everyone, which was helpful! Hina and I made something that Miho said was Japanese--rice wrappers filled with shrimp, lettuce, onions and a mixture of ground pork. We had curry, pork, sashimi (I tried the squid--very rubbery), cherries and the most unusual thing of all--spam sushi. Yes. Spam sushi. Sliced spam on rice, wrapped up with seaweed. Miho said that Japanese people eat this a lot. I tried it--not too bad, but certainly not what I ever expected to eat in Japan!

We watched a little bit of a DVD of a concert that Miho and Hina had been in--One Voice Aizu. They sing in a gospel choir, in both English and Japanese. Hina sang for us after dinner while Miho played the piano. It was a wonderful evening!

June 24--Homestay Day 1

Today was the day I've been so nervous about and I needn't have been. Our homestay families were supposed to come pick us up at the hotel lobby at about 10:00 and so we were all there, with our overnight cases, looking like (as someone else pointed out) puppies at the SPCA waiting to be adopted. I think that we were all nervous to varying degrees.

The people in Aizu who had arranged the homestays were there to make sure that everything went smoothly. I saw several other people go off with their families shortly before 10 and everyone seemed to be getting along well, so I think that eased my apprehension a bit. My family is a mom and a 9-year-old girl and when I saw their smiling faces and heard Miho (the mom) speak English, I knew that everything would be fine. Hina, the little girl, is the most adorable child on earth, of course. She introduced herself in English because she is learning a little bit of English in school. Some friends of theirs who live in the same apartment building are the host family for Beth, another teacher in our group, and they said that we would all be having dinner together that night.

We got into their cute little Honda (a model that I don't remember seeing in the States) and drove to their apartment building. It's a high-rise building, fairly new and very modern. I had brought gifts (remember my angst over gifts before I left?) and I wasn't sure of the best time to give them, but Meg had told us that we could give them when we arrived at the house. I had done my best to wrap the gifts separately and nicely. I think that Miho like the things that I brought for her (she hung the butterfly from Sunspots right away), but as for Hina and her gifts, all I can say is SCORE!! She seemed to love everything that I brought her. The first thing that she opened was a Cougar hat that the principal of Stuarts Draft Elementary had given me right before the trip. She got so excited--he mom said that she had really been wanting a cap and it went on her head immediately. The shirt looked too big, but she liked it anyway and the stickers were a big hit. She has a huge sticker collection, so thanks to all those who suggested stickers! I had asked our interpreter, Naoko, if she could translate the words of the school song on the back of the shirt and, wonderful person that she is, she did it for me, so I gave them the Japanese words along with the sheet music.

Miho had several possible plans for the day and she gave me some choices about what we would do. I'm sure that having someone come stay in your house is just as nerve-racking as being the guest (if it were me, I would have been staking out the hotel all week to get a glimpse of my possible guest!) and Miho wanted to be sure that I had a good time. I'm the 8th person that they've had stay in their home, so I guess it's old hat to them by this time.

First, we took a beautiful drive through the mountains to some waterfalls. Hina is absolutely in love with "The Phantom of the Opera" and that's the CD that they were playing in the car. At first, I thought that the voice I was hearing was on the CD, but it turned out that it was coming out of this little 9-year-old girl! Miho is a piano teacher, so I suppose that musical talent runs in the family. Miho had taken Hina to see the play in Tokyo and they have 4 different Phantom of the Opera movies at home!

I asked the name of the waterfalls, but the Japanese words seem to pass right through my brain with nothing to grab onto. It was cool up in the mountains and it was a nice change. Mt. Bandai and the surrounding mountains are gorgeous. After the waterfalls, we stopped at a small place for lunch. We sat on the floor (which will never be comfortable for me!) and I had udon noodles and some tempura. I'm not very good at eating noodles with chopsticks! The tempura was good--veggies, nato and that sweet bean paste again, but this time it was fried. Interesting, but it's still not my fave.

Next we stopped at the house of one of Miho's friends and he took us in his car to see a shrine. It was a very peaceful place. After that, he drove us to Isasumi shrine, which Miho told me that she visits on New Year's. This was a much more bustling place. An iris festival was going on and there was music and vendors had set up booths selling food, drink and crafts.

We saw a couple brining their baby to the shrine, complete with proud grandparents and a lot of photos. The mom was wearing a kimono and they all seemed so happy. We walked through the paths bordered by the colorful flowers and Hina fed the humongous koi. It was a beautiful place.

On the way back to the apartment, Hina tried out some of her English and said "Let's watch 'Phantom of the Opera' together". I agreed, of course! She was quite happy with her sentence and repeated it several times.

Monday, July 10, 2006

High School--Clubs / Tea ceremony

After classes, of course, was cleaning. Since these kids have been doing this since they were 6 years old, I'm sure it just seems natural to them. I was still gaping at teenagers actually cleaning their school!

Club activities began at 3:20. The administrators were proud to tell us that many of the clubs and sports have received awards and placed in national competitions. The sports clubs are track and field, baseball, basketball, volleyball, softball, badminton, table tennis, skiing, swimming, Japanese archery, kendo, naginata and soccer. Other clubs are art, literature, chorus, natural science, home economics (food and dressmaking), career studies, calligraphy, English, flower arrangement, photography, sado (the art of tea making), instrumental band, brass band, children's culture, comics and Junior Red Cross. Almost all students take part in club activities.

Today we were invited to a special tea ceremony in our honor by the sado club. A lady comes in to instruct the girls in the art of the tea ceremony. We learned a lot about how the tea is made and about some of the rituals of the ceremony. The girls seemed very solemn and took their roles very seriously. We had the traditional sweet before the tea (more bean paste!) and it was beautifully made. We then received the bowl of tea. When you pick up the bowl, you turn it 2 quarter-turns so that the design faces away from you and towards the others in your presence. The tea is whisked with a bamboo whisk to make it frothy. I must admit that I've not developed a taste for green tea. It's bitter and to me it tastes like grass or leaves mashed up and cooked. But the ceremony was nice and I certainly appreciate the work that went into preparing it for us.

High School--Classes

As in the junior high, I wanted to observe some English classes. It's difficult to understand what's going on in other classes, so that seemed like the best bet.

In the first English class I saw, the teacher was very nervous. Several in our group were in the class and he left to make copies for us of the workbook exercises that he was doing with the kids. This was an advanced English class and they were working on constructing sentences. The teacher read the sentences, gave the answers and had the students repeat the sentences. He rarely called on individuals. It seemed to be a very teacher-centered class.

Next, I went to an oral communication class, which is also an English class. The students were again repeating sentences as a class, but while I could understand the sentences that the teacher gave them, I couldn't understand the students' pronunciation at all--it sounded like a beehive. The teacher tried to make it more interesting by having various students come to the front, stand on their desks, read upside-down, and so on.

In the third English class, the teacher allowed us to get involved with the students. We sat with small groups of students and named the 50 states while they wrote them down in kana characters, I think. It was fun to actually be able to help out with a class and help the kids hear the sounds of the words.

I also observed a class, a home ec class I assume, where the teacher was showing the students how to dress a baby. There were both boys and girls in the class and we were told that it was a required class. Just like boys in the U.S., the Japanese boys were being silly, covering the baby's face and holding it upside down.

A few observations:
--Textbooks are much thinner than ours and most are paperback. I'm not sure if students buy them or not, but some were highlighting in the books. I think that the books come in several volumes so that they don't have to carry the whole load at once.
--The students all seem to carry pencil cases and many carry fans as well, since it's quite warm.
--Apparently, cell phones are allowed in school. I saw students texting on them between classes. I didn't see anyone using one during class, but others in my group said that they saw kids texting and playing games during class. There were also instances of students sleeping in class. Teachers did not say anything in either case.

High School--Yui and Shiori--my guides / Lunch

Today we were assigned to certain homeroom classes to start the day. Instead of us going to the classes as we did at the elementary school, 2 students from each class were sent to get us. They showed up at the door of our meeting room and came in somewhat shyly at first to call the names of their "adopted teachers". The 2 girls who were to be my guides were Yui and Shiori. They are friendly, giggly and very nervous. They fluttered their hands over their hearts to indicate just how nervous they were about coming to the room with all the American teachers.

They are both 18 years old and in their 3rd and last year of high school. They took me to their homeroom and their was a chair for me--gulp!--at the front of the room. The teacher was not in the room yet, but all the students were seated and reading, talking or working quietly. I thought that maybe I was supposed to introduce myself, so I did that, a bit awkwardly. The teacher arrived and apparently indicated to me that I should introduce myself. Oops! Obviously, I jumped the gun on that one, so once I figured out what she wanted me to do, I introduced myself again. Making a great impression, I'm sure! After a few minutes, the students were off to various classes and I went with Yui to cooking class.

All the students in the class were very friendly. Yui spoke a little bit of English, but not enough to have much of a conversation. She made sure that I had a seat next to her at a table. While we were waiting for the teacher, we compared hand sizes (mine was larger than the girls', but fortunately smaller than the hand of the boy sitting next to me). Next we compared feet, and of course my foot looks gigantic next to Yui's! The teacher arrived and there seemed to be a casual, easy relationship between teacher and students. The kids seemed to be copying something from a book--a recipe, perhaps?

The bell rang and I followed Yui to her next class. We were only supposed to stay with our guides for the first period, but she seemed to expect me to come with her (or maybe she was afraid that I would get lost!), so I did. I'm not sure if this class was called calligraphy or not--the students were writing kanji characters with pen instead of with paint and brush. I sat beside Yui again and watched her write the beautiful characters. I did my best to copy a few of the characters, but mine looked large and awkward.

A few others in our group had come into the class and the teacher kindly got some rubber stamps, stamp pads and blank cards to let us make some decorative postcards. When she was showing us the supplies, she wrote on one card "only one". We took that to mean that she was telling us that our cards would be unique, the "only ones" of their kind. Someone mentioned later that perhaps she meant that we were each only to make one card! I hope not because we each did several!

I left Yui after that class, but our guides came to pick us up again for lunch. As in the junior high, there was no school lunch--each student brought lunch from home. We were given a bento box lunch and went to our home classrooms to eat. Yui and Shiori and another girl were my lunch companions. They were very cute trying to communicate in English. One of them had a translator on her phone.

My lunch was lovely, as usual, and I tried to eat deftly with the chopsticks, but I couldn't quite manage the large pieces of tofu! The girls had beautiful lunches, prepared, they said, by mothers or grandmothers, and wrapped in colorful bandanas. Teachers were not in the classrooms while students were eating. Students ate, talked, studied, text-messaged on their cellphones (which seem not to be banned in school), and so forth. Towards the end of lunch, a girl came in with several things wrapped in plastic wrap. The girls gave me one and indicated that I was to eat it, that it was good. Apparently, they had made them in cooking class. I was a bit apprehensive about trying the gelatinous blob, but I did. I can't say what the outside was, but the inside was the same sweet bean paste that had been in the sweet that we had at the tea ceremony.

After lunch, they took me back to our home base. They were very sweet girls who handled their responsibiliy quite well.

June 23--Fukushima Prefectural Aizu-gakuho Senior High School

Today we visited Aizu-gakuho Senior High School, which would be equivalent to 10th, 11th and 12th grades in the U.S. At one point in the morning, we met with the principal, assistant principal and assistant head of curriculum, so I'll begin with some general information.

This school was established in 1924 as a girls' school and became co-ed in 2002. Next year, it will become the first combined junior/senior high school in the prefecture and will move to a larger campus.

The school mottos are:
Dream...The school and society dream as one
Love...The school which teaches sensitivity
Power...The school which has the power to be independent and to make a contribution to society

The goals of the school are:
1--All-around education; we help students to be individuals with intelligence, morals and good health
2--Aim to send 150 students (school population is 764) to 4-year universities (50 of those students to national unversities)
3--Sports teams and clubs aim to get prizes in national competitions

Each fall, 11th graders go on a school trip to the western part of Japan. The trip lasts 5 days.

These administrators are proud of their school and they gave each of us a high school pin, the commemorative book for the school's 80th anniversary (celebrated 2 years ago) and a CD with the school song. They also put out a number of textbooks for us to take if we wanted them.

A little taste of home

After the visit to the junior high, several of us were ready to relax a little bit and I know that I didn't feel like dealing with another Japanese menu! So we decided to go to that All-American institution, McDonald's! I have to admit that I felt a tiny bit sheepish--I had been all set to try new dishes and eat Japanese food. After a week and a half, though, I was ready for something familiar. I don't eat at McDonald's much at home, but it was comforting to have a cheeseburger, fries and diet coke! The only "different" things I saw on the menu were a shrimp burger and a green-tea milkshake!

And on the walk back to the hotel, we stopped at 7-11!!

Junior High--Club activities

After the cleaning, students had club activities. Some of the activities offered at this school are softball, baseball, basketball, volleyball, table tennis, gymnastics, debate, swimming, band, art, computers, chorus, kendo, naginata and track and field.

The first activity that I saw was naginata. I had no idea what this was, but found out that it is a martial art which uses a long bamboo pole. We watched the students for a while and then they invited us to join in. They taught us a few moves and it was fun!

Next, we went to the gym to watch kendo, the art of Samurai swordmanship. It was a very warm day (none of the schools were air-conditioned), but these young men were dressed in their outfits (uniforms? costumes?). They gave us some information and a demonstration. It was very impressive! Volleyball and table tennis were taking place in the same gym.

Junior High--Observing Classes

The classes offered at this school are similar to classes offered in the U.S.--math, science, social studies, music, Japanese, English, P.E., art, etc. The classrooms are not open as they were at the elementary school, but there were big windows on the wall that bordered the hall. Students were wearing uniforms and it was interesting to find out that their shoes were color-coded--7th graders had blue trim, 8th graders had yellow and 9th graders had green. I wanted to observe English classes because those would be the closest thing to my French classes that I would see. English is the only foreign language offered.

In the first English class that I saw, the teacher was playing a game with the students. All the students stood up. The teacher asked a question and the kids raised their hands if they knew the answer. If the student got the right answer, he could choose to sit down by himself or he could choose for his whole row or line to sit down. This continued until everyone was sitting. The teacher gave a 5-word spelling quiz and asked the American teachers in the room to help out. We came to the front of the room and we were to give the sound of each letter. The word that I got to do was "pen", so not too difficult. The person who had to do "six" had a more difficult task when trying to give the sound of the letter "x"!

I also observed a wonderful and energetic social studies teacher and it was interesting because she was teaching United States geography. I would assume that this is a World Geography class, but I don't know for sure. She had drawn (freehand!) a map of the U.S. on the board and I could tell that they were talking about the various cities. The kids were very engaged and involved. They watched a video about some U.S. cities and the kids laughed when they saw the American sushi bar!

Towards the end of the day, we were all invited to come to an English class which was a "lesson study". This means that many other teachers came into the class to observe (their students were left on their own in their classrooms) and later all the teachers would get together to discuss the lesson and offer advice and suggestions. Two teachers team-taught this lesson and they were both fun and energetic. They had the kids come up to us and say "Hello, my name is ___. May I have your name?" The kids were much more shy than the elementary kids were yesterday, but they did ask us. The teachers then did a little "rap" kind of thing with accompanying music and pictures on the television. Finally, they played an "Old Maid" type card game where they had to match portions of sentences. For example, "I use water" is a match for "to wash my face."

We didn't have as much interaction with the students as we were allowed to have yesterday at the elementary school. We had a bento box lunch, but ate it in the library, so we didn't get to talk to the students as much as we would have liked. But the students did seem curious about us and we got to talk a little more to some of them at club activities.