Thursday, 22 May 2008

It's Thursday again...

In case you couldn't tell, I am really enjoying my Intro to Ed course on Thursday mornings (and I'm not just saying that because I made the mistake of mentioning my blog to my prof and he asked me for the address...)

Class today was on teaching styles. The professor started by asking us to raise our hands and express our preference for either one-on-one style teaching or one-on-mass. I abstained since he hadn't specified if we were to answer from the point of view of a university student or a potential teacher, or what type of class/subject/etc... yes, yes, I know, my father always complains when I do this splitting hairs thing! Anyways, so it turns out the prof was basically setting us all up. You see, he asked the question expecting something along the lines of the 3:1 in favour of mass teaching response that he got. (disaffected university students want as LITTLE individual contact with their profs as possible, after all!) Then we watched video clips of innovative math classes in a US private school and a large but cutting edge public school in China. Both teachers used various teaching method, including games to keep the kids interested and small group activities to involve everybody at once. While there were obvious differences, the similarities between the two classes were quite striking given social and cultural differences between China and the US.

The Chinese kids started their lesson by chanting their times tables up to five, and then singing a song with the same. The more I thought about it the more I realized that the games and activities that followed were all checking memorization - quite often focused on getting the child to give the correct answer as quickly as possible. Numbers were expressed in abstract terms - words, numerals or traditional hand gestures (not simply holding up that number of fingers).

Until asked by my professor, it didn't occur to me just how different this was to the American classroom, and to how I had learnt math in Canada as well. When I went up to hand in my weekly comments sheet he asked me if I had been taught math through physical representations of numbers. My immediate response was (in my own head) "Of course so! One apple is one apple, two apples are two apples and the easiest way to explain 1 + 1 to a 5 year old is to give them two apples." But apparently they don't teach that way in Japan (or China either, for that matter). Huh. I have a vivid memory of a first or second grade math class where the teacher handed us REAL money (woo hoo!) and had us count it out individually. Why do I remember one specific class from over 20 years ago? Well... they say we remember the bad things the longest, right? I can't for the life of me remember any of the games we played at lunch time or recess, but I remember this one math class very vividly. You see, I got mixed up between time and money, and decided that there were 60 cents to the dollar (and no I'm not talking exchange rates on the Canadian dollar!). So I counted it up and decided I had $1.05 When I announced this to my teacher she did a double take and squawked "I didn't give you THAT much money!" Sure enough, I had only $.65 My entire class laughed and I was left with a life-long memory of shame...

Right, so where was I? Ah, yes... Thursdays are for Education...

So what about your elementary school math classes? Did you learn basic math through physical representations (money, blocks, etc) or did you memorize it by rote? I'd love to hear feedback on this one!

My professor already knows what his comments are going to be. After watching the videos and seeing the American and Chinese classrooms and how basic math was being taught, most of the university students who raised their hand in support of mass lecture-style teaching would be doing an about-face, supporting inclusion of individualized teaching and other forms of learning as important teaching tools. Not simply telling us the answer, but giving students the opportunity to "come up with it" on their own? In teacher-speak I think that's called "guided discovery."

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Education Thursdays

My Intro to Education Theory course on Thursday mornings is proving to be a thought provoking class. The prof ends class 5~10 minutes early and has us write down and hand in our comments/responses to that week's class. (this also serves the purpose of taking attendance, which in many courses comprises part of the final grade)

This past week we ran a bit late and I didn't have enough time to martial my thoughts and get them all down on paper, so I left class with a full mind and an almost painfully strong need to sit down with paper and pen and WRITE.

This week's theme was academic ability - in particular its relation to an individual's personal traits and cultural differences. We looked at a number of studies that tested 5 year-olds and linked their results to their academic test scores in grades 5 and 6. The first was of a matching test, where the little kids were asked to pick the matching image out of 6 similar choices.

(don't worry if you can't find a pair - I spent a good 5 minutes searching
before I realized this is just the ANSWER, the question - with the one you are
supposed to find the match for, was not included in our class handout)

In the second test, kids reached into a box and (without looking) touched a wooden shape and then had to pick out the shape they had felt from four diagrams on a piece of paper.

The study showed that in Japan there is a strong correlation between how a student did on the matching test, and how they did academically later in elementary school. In the United States, however, while there was no correlation for the matching test, there was an even STRONGER correlation between how a child did on the shape-feeling test and how they scored academically years later. In short, in Japanese schools it is the students with patience and attention to detail who excel, while in the US it is free-thinkers with good imaginations.

No surprise there, I suppose. Isn't that the stereotype, after all? Hammering down the nail that sticks up, versus the sacredness of the individual. I'm not one to agree with something just because that is what "everybody says," however, in fact I'm just contrary enough to want to believe the exact opposite! So, I began to think...

I started with my Brownies. After all, I first became a Brownie leader 10 years ago (we are NOT going to discuss the fact that that means my very first Brownies graduated from high school last year and have just finished their first year of university, making them the same age as the "kids" in my education class!! But I digress...) In the intervening decade I've worked with 5 different troops in Canada, the US and Japan. Culturally, the North American and Japanese Brownies are divided by uniform. While in Canada and the US girls are required to wear no more than their scarf and enrollment pin, and can choose from more uniform options such as t-shirts, sweatshirts, blouses, skirts, shorts, sweat pants, full headscarves... In Japan, on the other hand, girls are required to wear uniform hats, blouses, skirts belts and socks. For formal occasions black shoes (of your own choosing) are also required. This is a cultural difference (I can't imagine trying to tell the parents of my girls in Canada that their daughter must wear totally black shoes with her uniform, they'd think I was mad or controlling or both!) but is also at least partially due to a desire in North America to make Guiding/Scouting accessible to a wider (specifically lower income) audience. So the first image that came to mind was the uniformity of my Japanese Brownies versus the individuality of my North American Brownies.

Stereotypes: 1
Sarah's contrariness: 0

I started thinking more superficially about the troops I've worked with and the girls in the troops. I was rather surprised to realize something that has never hit me before. My Brownies are all in the 8-10 age range but unconsciously I had been thinking my Japanese Brownies were older. While this could be partially due to the fact that in both Canada and the US I also worked with the pre-Brownie age group as well, the more I thought about it the more I realized that my American and Canadian Brownies seemed younger, more kid-like, my Japanese Brownies much quieter and more reserved.

Stereotypes: 2
Sarah's contrariness: 0

I decided at this point to think of other examples, so I turned to my prison sentence time as an English teacher. My favourite memory is of the Halloween craft project I did with all my students under the age of 16. I cut out pumpkin-shaped templates in orange construction paper and gave each student a pair of scissors and black paper. They were not allowed to write or draw pictures, but could decorate their Jack-o-lantern in any way they desired. Most of them looked at me dumbly as I slowly and simply explained (miming when needed) what I wanted them to do. I had made a basic example myself and was half expecting to have dozens of similar Jack-o-lanterns. While it took them a few moments to get warmed up, however, my students COMPLETELY AMAZED me with their creativity and individuality. No two Jack-o-lanterns were ANYTHING alike, and not one single one looked like mine or any other "traditional" Jack-o-lantern either!

Just a few of the unique creations my kids came up with.

Stereotypes: 2
Sarah's contrariness: 1

The craft had originally grown out of a desire to make decorations for the school when my manager couldn't find any decorations she liked at the store. The kids LOVED having their handiwork up for all to see, and many of the cram school teachers and students asked if they too could make a Jack-o-lantern. I had been a bit worried that the parents would complain of a valuable lesson hour having been largely "wasted" on a craft project. I was not, however, prepared for the reaction I got. The parents were overwhelmingly positive in their reaction. They LOVED the artwork and enjoyed trying to guess which face belonged to which child. I also had a number of parents individually thank me directly or through my director for having done such a project with their child. They felt it was an important creative opportunity, one their child didn't have outside of the English classroom.

Stereotypes: 3
Sarah's contrariness: 1

With this type of score, I was forced to take a step back and think about the bigger picture. I thought too about kids programs I helped out with at the museum, and about the experiences of my friend who is Japanese but worked in the US as a museum educator. Gradually I began to see a picture that largely agreed with the studies. Culturally, Japan is a country that encourages similarity and order. Children, when encouraged, are just as imaginative and energetic and individual, but they are much less likely to be encouraged to do so, especially not in a classroom setting.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Mummy Jhaveri

At the end of March I got sad email telling me of the passing of a wonderful woman that everybody I knew simply called "Mummy."

Many years earlier the Jhaveri family had adopted Sangam (the centre in India where I volunteered/lived), inviting staff, volunteers and many event participants into their homes. A normal visit would include a long conversation over cups of hot chai, followed by a delicious home-cooked dinner (after which it was time to leave, as it was Mummy's bedtime!)

I can't imagine how many strangers from around the world this incredible family welcomed into their home, but each and every one left feeling like they had made lifelong friends. The entire family had a way of making you feel at home in their home.

This evening when I came home from work I found a letter from India in my mailbox, with a printed page bearing a poem titled "A Celebration of Mummy." I'm a little late, but in honour of Mother's Day and a wonderful woman, I wanted to share a section of the poem:

We remember you...
Your love
Your warm smile and
Those sparkling eyes
The fun and laughter you shared
The peace as you endured
And your internal strength
We respect you...
Your generosity
Open heart and open door
Unassuming hospitality
Welcoming all into your home
Serving those from distant lands
And close to home
Indian mother to us all

Good-bye Mummy Jhaveri, and thank you.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Simple Minds...

What do these pictures have in common?

Well, I was editing a friend's English translation last night. The translation in question is for a Japanese museum/botanical garden, and one of the special exhibits was described as:
Traditional Japanese Morning Glories
Be amazed by mutant Japanese morning glories from the Edo Period.

Mutant morning glories?! (snort!) I read the line and I couldn't help but burst into laughter. It still has me giggling over 24 hours later. Mutant morning glories?! (snort!) My youngest cousin was big into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I can still hear the TV show's theme song in my mind. Just imagine - Mutant Ninja Morning Glories!! (snort!) The image in my head is as clear as if I had seen it somewhere - a bright blue morning glory face with a slender green body, decked out with a face mask and martial arts weapons, looking menacing. Mutant morning glories... (bwahahahahaha!!!)

Yes, simple minds, simple pleasures...
(oh, and once I explained why I was laughing so hard I had tears pouring down my face, my friend found it just as amusing as I did, although he was quite possibly laughig AT me...)

Monday, 12 May 2008

Crazy Gaijin? CHECK!

There are some days when the Japanese language causes me to want to bash my head repeatedly against a hard surface - any hard surface. There are some days when I swear that the language itself is out to get me. There are some days when no matter what I try to say in this #%^%!@ language it just won't come out right (I've had friends say the same thing, so I know I'm not the only one). And then, once in a while there are days when it actually makes sense. When my host mother says, out of the blue "wow! Your Japanese has gotten SOOOO much better!" Or when I sit down to read an assigned read for class and, after beating myself up for taking hours to read 20 pages, realize I understood it pretty well, and didn't even use my dictionary!

My host mother's complements aside, being complemented on your Japanese skills is not always a big complement, as it often comes after you've only uttered a few simple words. I still bristle when I remember having my language skills complented by an older Chinese waitress in an alley-way yakitori shop. Her accent was so thick that I barely understood her (although the condesension was crystal clear, thank you very much!), and had to bite my tongue from replying nastily "yeah, my Japanese is better than yours, @#$%*(!"

I am amused to report that despite any difficulties I may be having with the language, apparently it is the best one for me... nice to get the confirmation I suppose! (although I'd hardly throw in the towel and move to the other side of the world if told I was better suited to learn Swahili, as tempting as it may be...)

You Should Learn Japanese

You're cutting edge, and you are ready to delve into wacky Japanese culture.

From Engrish to eating contests, you're born to be a crazy gaijin. Saiko!

Thursday, 8 May 2008

A Woman's World

One of the courses I am taking this term is Intro to Education Theory, a required course for both the teaching and curatorial certificates. The prof is apparently rather well known, as he is a prolific author. While I can't speak to that, I can tell that you he definitely doesn't fit the old adage that "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. And those who can't teach, teach teachers." His class is always interesting, thought provoking, and very well taught. We've been looking at gender and education over the past few classes and that, in combination with some comments I've gotten recently, got me to thinking...
Japan is famous for its cuteness. It is quite acceptable, normal even, for grown women to wear frilly pink things. Frilly pink is a fashion statement I haven't made since I was about 10 years old. But as bellbottoms demonstrated, fashion has a way of coming back, and so it appears that pink frills are going to be re-introduced into my wardrobe after a nearly 20 year hiatus. By force, if necessary, as one of my friends demonstrated recently! But let me backtrack...

I was a girly-girl as a kid, my favourite colours were pink and purple and my favourite clothes were the beautiful dresses my mother hand-made for me. Gradually, however, I (like most girls I knew) grew out of it, and became more comfortable in jeans. I took this trend a little further than some, perhaps, as when I wore a skirt to math class in grade 12 my teacher just about fell of his desk in surprise. Two years later, during my first trip to Japan, the petite and feminine Korean exchange students in one of the other classes all but forced me to start wearing make-up and buy a skirt. My second time studying in Japan I started wearing nail polish. My host mother attributed this to the guy I had just started dating and was so impressed that a guy could have such a feminizing effect on the lost case she saw me as, that she was ready to send us down the aisle after only a few weeks of dating. She immediately took me shopping and picked out a shade of pearly pink nail polish for me. Fast forward 5 years. Different university, different group of friend, different boy, and yet the same effect. My friends find out there is a guy I'm interested in and they go into full feminizing mode. While having lunch with a friend a few weeks back, I made the comment that I wanted to buy a pair of shoes. She squealed and proceeded to bodily drag me into shoe stores. My enormous foreign feet (I can still hear Indian shopkeepers yelling "big size, big size!!") are a size or two over the largest shoes normally available in the average store. My friend and I, however, managed to find a couple of different Godzilla-size shoe stores. She groaned and rolled her eyes at a few of my choices, clearly vetoing anything that didn't have a bow or other cutesy decoration. She argued hard for something with a heel, but those of you who know me know that this klutz needs no help tripping over her own feet, so I flatly (groan!) refused heels. I finally settled upon a pair of off white flats that satisfied both me AND my friend.

After shoe shopping, she decided to take the girl-ifying one step further, and address my accessories. She helped me pick out a pink and silver necklace and then proceeded to scour every single store she could find for matching earrings.

All of this (plus the blushing and gushing caused by the aforementioned thing for the guy) has caused my friends to make comments like "wow, you are a girl after all!" and "You're turning into a girl!!" (begging the question, what was I before?!)

With strains of Shania Twain running through my head, I've turned to people watching - checking out the shoes of women on the train (almost exclusively ballet flats or heels, except for the 65 and over crowd), noticing the high number of women in skirts walking by the coffee shop, remarking on the dressy-ness of women in the grocery store and groups of mothers waiting for the school bus. Everywhere I looked (in Tokyo, I admit), I was struck with the formalness, the dressy-ness, and most of all the femininity of Japanese women.

My professor today talked about societal conditioning of gender identity - from colouring and patterning of socks and other baby clothing, to usage of certain linguistic terms for boys or girls. In the arena of education one of the examples he gave was of a girls high school where a belief that girls were less interested in/qualified for maths and sciences led to a smaller number of those courses offered. This caused more girls to take arts and humanities courses, thereby fulfilling and fortifying the expectations. This self-perpetuating cycle makes it more difficult for girls who might be interested in maths and sciences to chose that route. I would add to that the uniforms worn by junior high and high school students. While boys wear shirts and ties or the more common Mandarin collar-style buttoned jacket with slacks, girls wear blouses or sailor blouses and (very short) skirts.

(the historical progression of uniforms from one school)

Girl Scout uniform is also skirts and blouses on all occasions except for camp.

While I know a number of examples to the contrary, it is still the norm for Japanese women to give up outside employment to look after their family. In response to a presentation in my sociology grad seminar last week about social support for mothers/housewives, the two male grad students remarked that they were open to the idea of quitting their jobs to look after the family/home if their wife were making more. When the professor, skeptical of their sincerity, questioned one with specific mention to the girlfriend, the student in question was much less convincing. My education professor came to basically the same answer. He would like to see change. He says he can't understand why more fathers don't get involved in child-rearing and housework, he loves it! (he's married with a young daughter)
He has little confidence in the ability of the education system to effect major change, however.

Where does this leave me? Well, I need to go and do my make-up and my hair and iron my outfit before I go to class, I'll get back to you later...

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Dancin in the Streets!

It is Golden Week in Japan - a series of national holidays starting with Showa Day on April 29th, and ending with Children's Day on May 5th. While there are non-holidays thrown in there, many companies and schools have an extended break. The result? Quite simply PEOPLE EVERYWHERE! Tourist attractions of every sort are mobbed, roads and highways turn into parking lots, and public transport is packed. What with school work piling up (two oral reports and my thesis outline with bibliography due over the next few weeks), I decided to be good and stick close to home. All work and no play makes Sarah a dull girl, however, so this evening I went with a friend to a festival in Fuchu, western Tokyo. We could hear the huge taiko drums as soon as we left the station, once we got close each drum beat reverberated through our bodies. The best view was looking down on the taiko from the exit of the train station.

Look carefully and you'll see this particular taiko is stopped in front of a Makudonarudo... The older men on and around the taiko convinced the young girls in their golden arches aprons to give the huge drum a whack... a combination of traditional Japanese and modern globalization!

The men on top of the taiko call out and set the pace of the drummers who use huge baseball bat sized drumsticks.

The taiko on their large floats are pulled through the crowded streets...

into the shrine compound...

and right up to the shrine itself.

After watching the taiko my friend and I headed into the maze of stalls selling flowers, plants, tacky kids toys, and festival food (okonomiyaki, yakisoba, yakitori, weiners-on-a-stick, donair sandwiches, traditional sweets, cotton candy, and chocolate-covered bananas...)

Umm... right... next!

We bought a couple of pancake-sized flat grilled gyoza (dumplings) and headed back out to the street to see the floats that were appearing as it got dark. These floats were ornately decorated, covered in lanterns and carried musicians and children dancing. The kids, in their traditional masks, were really expressive and impressive!

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but these pictures just don't do the floats justice. Once it was too dark to take any more pictures I suddenly remembered that my cell phone has video capabilities (have I mentioned before that I love my phone?!). I whipped it out and went nuts taking videos of the floats as they were pulled back and forth along the stretch of road in front of the shrine. When two floats passed each other they were pulled close together, their attendants would start jumping up and down, clapping and cheering, and the dancers would leer and gesture at each other. Then, having apparently released their agression, the two floats would be dragged appart and would continue on their way. But don't take my word for it, check it out yourself!

There were lots of dancers both big and small, they would switch out when they were tired, ducking into the curtained area at the back. By far the fan favourite, however, was this little boy masked as a fox. He couldn't have been more than about 6 years old, and was adorable, combining traditional fox moves with ones that I swear he picked up from the Power Rangers!

After the dozen or so floats had been dragged up and down the street for a while they were lined up and a sort of dance-off resulted, as the dancers on each float tried to out do each other, and the musicians played over each other. A delightful cacophany of sound and movement.