31 January 2011

Gender Roles in Japan

Before coming to Japan, I was warned of a possibly stringent view of gender roles here. While preparing for the JET interview I came across strange questions online, apparently often asked of American applicants. For example, if you were in the staffroom and all the female teachers began preparing tea for all the male teachers, and they asked you to join them, how would you react? This question proportedly weeds out the feminist applicants, those who will be rejected because it's suspected they'll shove their culturally insensitive ideas of gender equality down the poor Japanese people's throats. According to the online advice about JET interviews, it's best to suppress your inner feminist for their duration, if you really want to go to Japan.

You can probably extrapolate from my position on JET, that I was never asked this question.

In my staffroom, thankfully everyone makes tea for themselves. The cultural conflict with regard to gender roles has only arisen on several occasions. Questions about my parents were along the lines of: What does your father do? Does your mother work outside the home? While discussing teachers' extra curricular responsibilities at school, I learnt that males generally shoulder more of the burden of club activities because females have more household chores to attend to. One teacher asked me what the balance of genders in my university math course was, and seemed suprised to learn that it was roughly 50/50.

Then there's grammar. The already tough essay marking scheme is made more complicated when I mark students' use of 'he' as the ungendered third person singular pronoun as wrong. I'm aware that they were probably taught this by the JTEs. I'm even aware that there is no genuine ungendered third person singular pronoun to use instead, so I cross out 'he' and write 'they'. I'm patiently awaiting the moment when a JTE notices this and questions me about it. But even this is only the tip of the iceberg of my aggressive cultural insensitivity!

I've immensely enjoy raising gender issues during lessons. I'm convinced that it's crucial to broadening the students' minds. To my utter dismay, I find that unless I assign their seats, the classroom is divided down the middle, boys on one side, girls on the other. I appreciate that secondary school is a difficult time for kids, and they're pretty awkward. This could reasonably result in their staying within their group of friends, not in boys and girls consistently avoiding one another. Maybe I'm biased, because in my old co-ed school we formed mostly mixed-gender groups of friends naturally.

Of course, the fact that I'm teaching debating facilitates it all. I assigned some students speeches on feminism and was pretty impressed with the results. Women should be paid the same as men. Parents shouldn't dissuade boys from crying because it's girly. On the other hand, (and I had to assist the student to think of single bad point) feminism runs the risk of ignoring the real differences between the sexes.

The agree or disagree game was even more productive. Boys and girls should wear the same school uniform. Do you agree or disagree? I can't help but paint the uniforms as a villian in the tale of the separation of male and female at my school. It's a marker of difference. The girls wear a navy skirt, blazer and bow tie, while the boys wear a black military style jacket and trousers. (The military jackets still kind of freak me out. It's like they're little educational soldiers.) Ok so many schools around the world have different uniforms for boys and girls, but for me the final nail in the coffin of the school's uniform policy is that they're even different colours. I mean it's just adding needless further difference. Why not have everyone wear the trouser suit and make them different colours? At least that way we could avoid the classic skirt/trousers, passive/active role implications.

What did the students have to say? They all disagreed. Boys and girls shouldn't have the same school uniform. The whys were difficult for them to articulate. It's always doubly difficult for the students when we engage in interesting analysis of an issue. First, they need to account for their opinions, justify themselves to themselves in Japanese. Second, they need to express their chain of reasoning in English. The popular why was, 'because boys and girls are differnt, so different clothes suit them'.

At this point I asked for a show of hands by the girls who usually wore skirts outside school. A single student raised her hand. So why do you wear trousers when they don't suit you? Our class schedule didn't permit further probing just then, but I was satisfied that they'd actually thought about the issue for the first time.

I'm pretty excited about our next class, in which we're holding half a BP debate on the motion, 'TTHB boys and girls should wear the same school uniform'!

The Genuine Global Language

When you're doing TEFL, you can't help but hear all about how English is the 'global language'. Apparently, the fact that Spanish and Chinese are more common is irrelevant. I love English just as much as the next person, but in my view it doesn't deserve its international status. In the worst case scenario, I'm also a raging colonialist.

Of course, the genuine global language is maths, Esperanto aside. It's automatically included in every basic education programme worldwide. I've even been used it to communicate with students on a few occasions. Today, I was grading a stack of 3rd year work. They had to translate a passage from Japanese and part of the sample answer was, 'When we name things we bring them into existence'. I thought it was a pretty difficult, not to mention philosophical passage for a translation exercise but how and ever..the vast majority of students wrote something like, 'When we name things we bring them out of nothing and give them life'.

I assume this is a direct translation from Japanese, since so many students said it exactly. I began crossing this out and writing the sample answers instead, but the issue of explaining the correction loomed. Obviously, there aren't two different verbs corresponding to 'live' and 'exist' in Japanese, so how do we explain the difference without using complicated English? I ended up drawing this picture on their worksheets:

I have to admit that I hesitated before including Harry Potter, but I was unsure whether they'd have encountered the fact that the roots of negative integers are imaginary on their high school maths course. I don't think I encountered it until college. Fortunately, I was confident that they would have seen Venn diagrams. Also, thank God for that other international reference point, the boy who lived.

This was actually the second solution I came up with. I was unsatisfied with the first, which involved drawing 'there exists' and 'there does not exist' signs. I thoroughly doubt the students have encountered these yet.
Unfortunately, I do still draw them when a student tries to pluralise a word which has the same singular and plural form, by adding an s. Common blunders are 'persons', 'informations' and 'knowledges'. It's so much faster to write 'there does not exist' 'informations' than explain my marking otherwise!
I expected the JTEs to ask questions about the diagrams and random figures I usually draw all over the students work, but none have. I can only conclude that either they a) give it straight back to students without glancing at it, b) glance at it, follow it and think it's a grand way to give feedback, or c) they glance at it, wonder what it's about and are too embarrassed/not bothered enough to ask me. I'm voting for a) or c).

After my bout of necessary Venn diagram drawing today, I began Venn diagram doodling. I call this 'levels of reality', because I've just recalled that you're supposed to label Venn diagrams.

Interestingly, the outside is intimately related to the inside because it's humans, with imagination who make up imaginary things. Like J.K. Rowling inventing Harry Potter, or whichever mathmagician started playing with imaginary roots. This seems to imply that the 2 dimensional diagram is not properly conveying the information. Maybe if we folded it into a doughnut...hmm...

I miss you maths!

30 January 2011

Special Needs School

With translation's slow catching up between one language and the next, it's easy to explain how political correctness gets left behind. I have utterly no knowledge of Special Needs kids, their varying types of abilities and disabilities, and obviously still...no Japanese to make the conversations I had to have more direct. The result was a meeting in which I was told about my visit to the 'handicapped school', where some kids had 'mental retardation' or 'mental and physical disabilities' (so vague!). Can they move around the room? Yes, some need help but yes.
I later realised that the Japanese name for my school, Tokubetsu gakko, actually means Special School, which demonstrates that though politically correct advances are made in Japan as often as anywhere, translation is slow!

From past experience, and (luckily) from the JET midyear seminar, I had a little more info. As a child I visited St Michael's House in Dublin. My primary school class used to visit and play games with the children there. One little girl, who I had become friendly with used to pinch my forearms. It was very difficult to get her to let go.
At the JET midyear seminar, which happened before I had a single visit to my Special Needs School, there was a workshop on Special Needs Education in Japan. Many JETs described their schools and students. From this I learnt that some kids like to touch you, hang off you, drool on you etc. It was important to design activities that everyone could do.

Armed with my minutiae of information, I made 4 visits to my school in November and December. The teachers I met were the loveliest people ever. I quickly learnt that most were regular teachers, transferred to the school as the Board of Education saw fit. They had no special extra training for the entirely different job they were then expected to do! Each of them had or had to develop amazing patience and boundless energy and enthusiasm to keep up with the kids. I was mostly supervised by ones who had recently been high school English teachers.

Each day, I was met by a teacher by the stone statue of Doraemon outside the school. I was treated like royalty, and served matcha in a meeting room while we went over the day's plan. Walking through the corridors, every kid we passed starred at me and wanted to shake my hand. In the classes, I was only required to make a short self introduction, using pictures. The JTEs would translate. The kids asked far more questions than my regular high schoolers had, and interesting ones too! Do you like Halo 2? What kind of animals do you have in Ireland? Do you prefer Ireland or Japan? (always tricky!)

Apart from my introduction, the lessons were planned by the JTEs and would usually involve singing a song or playing a game together and the students presenting something they had prepared for me. Oddly enough, unlike at regular school I didn't hesitate to sing and dance around with the students, wildly flailing my arms and generally looking like a complete fool..no one cared. All the JTEs did it. All the students did it. We had fun.

The kids were some of the worthiest human beings I've met in my entire life. They made valiant efforts to communicate with me, though we spoke barely a word of one anther's languages. At break time they took my by the hand and brought me outside. We played football and looked at the pictures hung up all around their classrooms and corridors. They were so excited to meet me. Everyone wanted to shake my hand, sit beside me, link me, stand beside me in the circle, talk to me and be my volunteer. It was a bit of a culture shock after the reservation and awkwardness I'm used to from students, not to mention the lack of physical touching in Japan!

I realised that I was kind of hopeless as a teacher there, as I had been at regular school initially.
During my first self intro, I tried to explain the significance of the 3 leafed shamrock with regard to St Patrick's Catholic teaching. I'm sure this would still be fairly difficult with an adult audience, whose language you were speaking!
During my second visit, I decided to try Irish dancing with the students. We formed a circle and I played Riverdance. When everyone was excitedly jumping up and down (not exactly the neat 1-2-3 I'd hoped for but whatever), I tried to coax them into 2 straight lines to dance the Haymakers Jig. Not a hope. Of course, we had a lot of fun free styling it around the room, and they did get to listen to Irish music!

At the end of the day, I think I can see why JETs have been reluctant to broadcast their experience of working in Special Needs Schools. I get the impression that comparatively little is said about it by people who go there. One reason is not knowing enough. For example, what sort of disabilities do the kids at the school I visited have? I don't really know the answer. Some had Down Syndrome, some were in wheel chairs, but beyond that I'm not equipped to answer. The JTEs' English wasn't sophisticated enough to explain.

Another reason is the sensitivity of the subject, the politically incorrect terms and the pitying or special tone that other teachers tend to use when they refer to your Special Needs School. Are the schools something shameful to be avoided in conversation? A difficult subject, with a high likelihood of offending someone?

Finally, my own lack of clarity about where the Special Needs line is drawn makes the system difficult to access and thereby comment on. Where do dyslexic students go? Students with ADD? There are no support systems to help kids with these problems in my regular school, for instance. So I worry whether they get a fair chance, or whether in fact children with intellectual disabilities get the best chance by being lumped together and branded 'Special Needs'.

Despite my ignorance and the questions I can't answer, I think it's worthwhile to convey my experience of the Special Needs School I visited. It's possible that by sharing what we do know, we can learn more.

26 January 2011

Technical Difficulties..what's new?

The blogger dashboard informs me that I haven't posted in a whole 2 months, well screw you blogger dashboard. You live happily on an Internet server somewhere enjoying a constant and blissful connection to the web. Some of us are not so lucky..

Actually the first month of radio silence can't be explained by technical difficulties, unless I say that I was technically to busy to blog. Or is that stretching it? December filled up with exciting events (more in future posts) and counting down the 21 days til Ireland.

Post December 21st, while I was in Ireland, it was technically difficult to blog because I was suddenly surrounded by hoards of stimulating stuff vying for my attention. For example, living with 4 other people instead of alone, turkey, roast potatoes, Cadburys...and so on (as my students say). By the time January 9th, the fateful day of my re-emigration, rolled around, I realised that I hadn't checked my facebook page in over 2 weeks.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the packing frenzy...I neglected to pack my laptop power cable. I packed the laptop alright, battery fully charged and everything...but by the time I reached Japan I'd already used up most of it. In fact, there was just enough time to copy my lesson plans for this term onto a USB before it shut down, lucky, lucky!

But of course, obtaining the power cable was a simple task, wasn't it? Indeed I called my family as soon as I reached home (note: controversial use of 'home' referring to my Japanese apartment), and encouraged them to post the cable asap. Should they use tracker post? No...no need. Sure why would I need to know where the parcel was exactly? As long it came to me in the end it was grand, so we went with regular post. MISTAKE.

As I later learnt, the beauty of tracker post is that it gives the post office some accountability should your parcel mysteriously disappear. Given this, I have some advice for whoever's running the post office these days...You could actually increase your profits a whole lot by not bothering to deliver anything sent by regular post. Sell it on EBay instead why doncha?...but I digress...The post office told my family that the parcel would take 3 to 7 days to deliver. 10 days, and no parcel later I was freaking out. Would yelling at the post office staff help? Apparently not.

A helpful JTE then got me a map showing the way to an electronics shop nearby, so I went there, powerless laptop in tow. After a lot of deliberation, several employees at the shop shook their heads while speaking to me in Japanese. I took this to mean that they didn't have a compatible cable. I tried to make enquires using my basic Japanese (in-ta-n-to oh-da?), to no avail. Dejected, I crawled back to my unwired hovel.

Last Friday (21st), I grew tired of my desperate situation. I went crying to my supervisor (that man is a saint), and he consulted the IT teachers who ascertained that it was indeed impossible to purchase a suitable cable in Shizuoka. They suggested I order online. Just how I was supposed to do this through Japanese remained unclear. Later that day, my supervisor attempted to help me order online, but his tech unsavyness thwarted our attempts. (I was loathe to wrench his laptop from him and take over the task)...
Eventually I ordered a cable from America over EBay. Delivery time: 2 weeks.

The following morning the Irish cable was delivered to my apartment. I had mixed emotions, and somehow managed not to hit the postman or embrace the package in his presence. Ten seconds later I was online.

You might think that the breadth of my technical difficulties don't merit this post's title...but wait...

The next day at school, I triumphantly presented my cable to my supervisor, ignoring his condolences over the cash I'd wasted on the American cable. Unsurprisingly, the school Internet started being a pain immediately. They're doing some sort of overhaul of the system at the moment, in addition to chaining laptops to each teacher's desk. I was lucky to be spared this fate. The high angle of my netbook's keyboard, when I'd placed it atop the new Fujitsu machine, would surely have caused me a repetitive strain injury of the wrists. In any case, the school server wasn't being a friend.

The next day when I managed to beggar technical assistance, it turned out that my proxy server settings had to be changed because "technical jargon/Japanese". Grand stuff, everything worked fine after that...until I got home. Whatever the techy had done to my Internet settings, my laptop was suddenly refusing to recognise my personal LAN! It took almost 5 mins to work out how to fix it, bother.

I had lost online time to make up for after all.