On Graduation: Part Two, the Ceremony

Last Saturday, I had to be at school at my usual time in a black suit with black shoes. All the other teachers wore the same thing (except for two third year teachers who wore hakama), and every student showed up to school in their uniforms.

Did I mention this was on a Saturday?

The Saturday of the graduation ceremony! I wrote about all the rehearsal leading up to this in my last post, and after anticipating it all week, I loved seeing everything come together!

When I got to school, the main entrance was draped with flags printed with the school’s name. Tables covered in flowers were set up just inside the entrance for parents to sign in. The third year homeroom teachers went to meet their classes in their usual rooms, and the first and second years went to the gym to practice all the songs we’d be singing one more time.

 

The entire gym floor had been covered with mats, and the aisle between all the chairs for students and parents was lined with potted flowers. The gym’s stage was decorated with Japan’s flag, Izumo city’s flag, and the school flag. A large bonzai tree sat on the center podium. A few kerosene heaters were working to keep the gym warm. The first and second year students helped to set all of this up and clean the school the day before. Now, they got to see their efforts contributing to this event.

After the third years filed into the gym with the school band playing to welcome them, we got started. We stood to sing Japan’s national anthem, and after some words from the vice principal, students started being called to the stage to receive their diplomas. At all the graduations I grew up with, receiving diplomas was always the last thing to do in the ceremony, so I was surprised that it happened so quickly here. I was also surprised by the silence as the graduating students walked across the stage. Back home, you’re technically not supposed to cheer for students getting their diplomas until the very end, but everyone ignores that rule. That’s why, when the third years started walking across the stage, I really wanted to clap for them, but everyone else in the gym was completely silent, so I didn’t.

To receive their diplomas, a student would step in front of the principal, who holds out the diploma. The student takes the diploma first with one hand, then the other. Then they hold the diploma over their head, bow, and take a step to the side so that the next student can come to the podium. Once you see all the little steps students have to go through just to move around at graduation, you completely understand why rehearsal is so important. The third years had definitely taken practice seriously, because they seemed to know what to do without even thinking too hard. Actually, the formality of graduation reminded me a bit of Japanese tea ceremony. When you perform a tea ceremony, you have to be very aware of how you hold yourself, how you receive or give something, how you move from one thing to another. The same kind of idea seemed to be present in this ceremony.

After all the graduating students had been given their diplomas, the speeches began. The principal, alumni, and an underclassman all gave speeches congratulating the third years. The speech by the underclassman was especially touching. She delivered a speech thanking her upperclassmen for their leadership in club activities and other school activities, and to say how much she would really miss them. This was the point where I heard sniffles from somewhere in the gym. The student on stage seemed to be close to crying, too, but she held herself together.

After this came my favorite part of the whole ceremony. All the students stood up. The third years turned to face the underclassmen sitting behind them, and all the students sang the graduation song to each other. A good luck from the underclassmen to the upperclassmen, and a goodbye from the upperclassmen to the underclassmen.

After the ceremony was over, the third years went back to their homeroom classes to say some final words to their homeroom teacher and classmates, and to receive a small gift. Since the third years I knew the best were all in different classes, I walked around to see what each class was doing. One teacher brought a guitar and sang for his students, and after the final goodbyes were done, groups of students started gathering together so that their parents could take a class picture.

To end the whole day, me and most of the other teachers gathered inside the entrance to the school, and sent off the third years as they walked out of the school for the last time. This was the point when I could actually say goodbye to the students myself. Everyone took their time leaving as they tried to find teachers they wanted pictures with and talked with their friends. A lot of students had started crying at this point. From what other people have told me, it’s very common in Japan for middle school friends to go to different high schools. For that reason, graduation can be a really emotional time for some students. One student I was saying goodbye to actually started crying as we were talking.

After a long time mingling outside, some of the teachers, had to get ready to host club activities for the first and second year students, so one of the teachers came out of the school with a megaphone and told the third years they had to go home now.

Every school’s graduation is a little bit different in setup depending on what level of school it is and where you are. In general, though, if you go to a graduation ceremony in Japan, here are some essential things to know:

1. Unless you’re a student, dress code is a black suit. If you’re wearing a tie, wear a white one! Don’t wear a black one because those are associated with funerals. 

2. It’s probably going to be cold wherever the ceremony is held, so dress in layers. 

3. If you don’t know what to do, ask one of the teachers. They’re been doing this for years and they’ll know how to help you. 

4. Be prepared for the possibility of crying. 

For any current ALTs out there, I hope you enjoyed this graduation season and can enjoy many more if you’re staying in Japan for a while longer! I definitely enjoyed my first experience with graduation. Seeing everyone graduate has already got me thinking about the next school year. In just a few weeks, new first years will be coming and the second years I’m teaching now will only be a year away from their own graduation!

卒業をおめでとう!

 

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On Graduation: Part One, Rehearsal

Graduation for all my students is this Saturday. This is definitely one of the busiest times of the year! On top of final exams for this term, students and teachers need to prepare for the graduation ceremony, and get ready for the school’s closing ceremony, which is a couple weeks from now. Since graduation in Japan is something that’s pretty unique when compared to other countries (especially my home country), I want to dedicate these next couple of posts to talking about my impressions of middle school graduation in Japan!

During Tuesday’s fifth and sixth periods at my bigger school, we had our first graduation rehearsal. The first thing I noticed was how seriously everyone took this. Every grade of students attended, and they had to bring their own chairs from their classrooms into the gym and line them up by class. For the first part of the rehearsal, the students had to practice bowing.

One of the teachers stood in front of the students and told them to stand up.

“Gokiritsu kudasai!”

The students stood up. The teacher immediately said, “Too slow, sit back down.”

The students sat back down.

“Gokiritsu kudasai!”

The students stood up.

“Better. Boys in the center, you’re slow. You over here, fantastic! Try again.”

The students sat back down.

“Gokiritsu kudasai!”

The students stood up.

“Excellent! Now rei! Bow!”

The practice continued like this for a while. Stand up quickly, bow for a count of two and then stand up straight again at a count of three, sit back down all at once when we tell you to sit down. Before and after all of this, don’t move, don’t turn you’re head to look around. You’re either third years or one step closer to becoming third years, so you can do this!

I asked some of my teachers about the reason behind the formality of everything, and they told me that it’s just because graduation is such an important occasion. Leaving middle school is a milestone, and so it’s important to acknowledge that by taking the ceremony seriously and having good manners.

The second half of rehearsal was dedicated to practicing the graduation song. There are a few different songs that are popular to sing at graduations in Japan, and we sang one called “Tabidachi no hi ni.” One student sat on the stage playing the piano. The rest of the students stood up and sang as the music teacher directed them. We took the song a verse at a time, and the music teacher would give the students directions on when and for how long to hold notes, which syllables to enunciate, et cetera. The song is really beautiful! It’s about spreading your wings with courage, and riding the wind with hope.

Today, the Friday before the actual ceremony, we had no classes. This morning, two people from the school’s alumni association came to give a speech to the students. They also presented each of the third year with gifts; an inkan, a name stamp that’s used as a signature in Japan, and a round case for each student to hold their graduation certificate in.

From here, we practiced more key parts of the graduation ceremony. We practiced the graduation song, the school song, and Japan’s national anthem. The third years practiced walking in and out of the gym, which was actually pretty exciting to watch! Before the third years walked in, the doors to the gym were closed. Some members of the school band stood on the second tier of the gym and played trumpets. Then, some teachers opened the doors to the gym and the whole school band started playing while the third years walked in two by two. Teachers and the other students had to clap for the third years the entire time they were entering and exiting the gym. There are a lot of students at my bigger school, so clapping for them gives your arms more of a workout than you would think!

So far, I think my favorite part of the graduation ceremony is when the students sing “Tabidachi no hi ni.” Not only is the song beautiful, but to sing it, the third years will turn around to face the second and first years. The students sing the song to each other. In this way, the third years get to tell their underclassman goodbye and good luck, and the underclassman get to say it back to their graduating class.

I like that the whole school gets to participate in the graduation ceremony. Doing this seems to make graduation a celebration for the whole school, not just the graduating class. I like the little bit of significance that this adds to the passing of each grade’s time. Not everyone is leaving school on the day of the ceremony, but it’s still good to acknowledge passing from one grade to the next. Also, it seems good to send off each year’s graduating class as a school. Events throughout the year like the Sports Festival and the Culture Festival have given the students a lot of time to work with each other outside of their own classes and grades. It’s nice that everyone gets the opportunity to take part in saying goodbye to the upperclassmen.

The ceremony starts early tomorrow. I can’t wait to see it!

On School Uniforms

When I was little, I had a friend who went to private school and I was envious of her uniform. I thought school uniforms were really cute, and I thought that if the public schools I went to had them, that a lot of problems would be solved. For example, I thought that if everyone wore the same thing, teachers wouldn’t have to worry about students wearing things that were against a dress code; or that if everyone wore the same thing, no one would be bullied because of their clothes. Basically, when I was little, I just wanted to wear a school uniform, and I thought that wearing them would make school better. Today, I have no idea if wearing school uniforms actually makes school better. If I had to make a guess, I would think that they probably didn’t make much of a difference in what a school was like. But since it’s been on my mind lately, I’m going to dedicate today’s post to talking about school uniforms in Japan versus dress code rules from my schools in America.

 

In elementary school in Japan, uniforms aren’t required. However, elementary schools students all typically have the same style of backpack. Also, when elementary school groups go out somewhere (such as on a field trip) they tend to wear uniform hats. These hats are usually a bright color, like yellow. Personally, I think this is genius because it makes the kids really easy to find in a crowd.

From middle school on, it’s a different story. Every student needs to wear a different uniform for classes in the summer, classes in the winter, and gym. A while back, I found a pamphlet at my school that explained what the students at my bigger school had to wear for their uniforms.

 

For Girls:

-A white shirt in the summer

-A sailor-style blouse in the winter

-Skirt all year round

 

For Boys:

-A white shirt in the summer

-Black collared jacket in the winter

-Long black pants all year round

 

My smaller school has the same style of uniforms. The gym uniforms are basic shirts and gym shorts/pants. A lot of the students have uniform track jackets, too. The one thing that really surprised me about the school uniforms was how expensive they were. One regular uniform from my bigger school can cost about 23,000 yen or about 200 dollars! I asked one of my JTEs about this, and she told me that usually, first year students will buy one uniform that is a few sizes too big for them, and then just wear that same uniform through their three years of middle school. That way, they don’t have to worry about spending that much money on uniforms each year. This actually explained a lot, because I noticed that many of the first years’ uniforms seemed really big for them. Luckily, though, there is an option to get uniforms for a cheaper price. At my bigger school’s culture festival, one of the events was a “Recycle Bazaar”, where they sold old uniforms from previous students.

Students have to wear their uniforms for as long as they’re at school. Sometimes, they need to wear their uniforms outside of school, too. At the speech and recitation contests that happened over the last two weeks, all the students participating wore their school uniforms even though the contests took place on a weekend and one of the contests was held at a public library. Another example is my bigger school’s anniversary celebration; it was held on a Saturday and students had to meet at the school in their uniforms before going to a different venue for the main events of the day.

When you wear a school uniform in Japan, everyone knows what school you belong to. If you wear a blazer-style uniform, you’ll probably have the school’s emblem somewhere on your blazer. My school’s have a different style of uniforms, but all of my students wear nametags with their name and the school’s name printed on it. On top of that, the buttons of the boys’ uniform jackets are stamped with the school’s emblem. If you skip school in your uniform, everyone knows where you should be. If you get into trouble in your uniform, everyone knows which school to talk to about it.

In general, the rules I’m aware of for uniforms are pretty straightforward. However, I feel sorry for my students during the changing seasons because throughout the year, their uniforms won’t change much. Girls have to wear skirts, even in the dead of winter. Boys have to wear long black pants, even in the middle of summer. None of my schools have central heating or air conditioning. This is pretty typical in Japan from what I’ve heard. One of my schools did install air conditioning/heating units in the classrooms, recently, but there aren’t any in the hallways. In schools that haven’t installed air conditioning/heating units, teachers will pull out space heaters or electric fans for the rooms. However, since it’s typical for buildings to not have insulation in Japan, any heat put into the rooms doesn’t stay there for long if the heaters are turned off.

If it’s cold outside, girls are allowed to wear tights or leggings under their skirts. So far, though, I haven’t seen many students actually do that. Over the weekend, it started getting really cold and rainy to the point where it started snowing further inside the mountains. When I came to school today, though, pretty much all of the girls I saw at school wore short socks! When I think back to my own time in middle school, I remember a lot of girls would wear shorts through the winter and I could never understand how they could stand it. I guess my students here must have the same cold-withstanding superpowers.

By far the most interesting story I’ve heard about students dealing with the weather in their uniforms came from a friend of mine here in Izumo. According to her, boys at a middle school once tried to convince their principal to let them wear shorts during the summer. They came up with some decent arguments, like how the shorts they wanted to wear were the exact same color as the uniform pants. The principal wasn’t going to let them wear shorts, but allegedly, he did say, ” If it bothers you, you can wear skirts.” He said this because he thought the boys wouldn’t want to wear skirts and drop the idea. But, as you’ve probably guessed, the boys who asked about wearing shorts actually did show up the next day wearing skirts. They probably weren’t allowed to keep doing that, but I’m glad they got to do it for a little bit at least. With how hot and humid the summers can get here, maybe wearing skirts should be an option for everyone. The same “No Shorts in the Summer” rule applies to male teachers at my schools, too, and I feel just as sorry for them as I do the students.

Now compare this to the schools I went to in America. I went to public schools for elementary, middle, and high school. Uniforms weren’t required at any point unless you were a member of a sports team going out to a game. My middle school technically had a dress code that forbade things like sagging pants or spaghetti-strap tank tops, but people broke those rules all the time and I don’t clearly remember anyone getting in big trouble for that. In high school, literally no one cared what you wore as long as you wore something. On the last day of senior year, a boy I knew from the drama club wore a wedding dress to the last day of school because he was “marrying his future.” Also on the last day of senior year, my younger brother wore a suit and top hat with a stuffed turtle on top of the hat. In elementary and middle school, we weren’t allowed to wear Halloween costumes to school, but in my high school, we were. Teachers even joined in with costumes sometimes. I also remember one history teacher who was famous because once a year, he would wear a dress to school. If anyone in his classes thought it was weird for him to do that (and someone always did) this teacher would use that to start a discussion about why people thought it was weird for men to wear dresses.

The closest thing to anything like this in my schools in Japan was the one time I wore a witch hat and Harry Potter scarf to school when I taught a lesson about Halloween. Even then, I only wore the hat and scarf during class and not in the staff room or anywhere else outside of class. Other ALTs I know have done similar things in their schools for Halloween, but we can do it because we’re ALTs. Also, I’ve heard it said that if someone is coming to visit a school on Halloween, other teachers might ask an ALT not to wear a costume for Halloween lessons.

In short: uniforms are law in Japan. Not necessarily in America. On a final note, a while back, some students from Finland came to visit my bigger school. When the Finnish students explained that they didn’t have to wear uniforms to one of my classes, basically all my students murmured, “Lucky!”

 

 

 

 

ALT Duties: First Impressions

Since I already put up a post about how I feel about teaching on the JET Program thus far, I thought it would be a good idea to also put up a more straightforward post about what working on the JET Program thus far has actually entailed. I’ll probably write more posts like this later on as new things come or go and if my thoughts on anything changes. But, for now, here’s a snapshot of what being an ALT in Izumo City, Shimane Prefecture, is like day to day.

The Bigger School:

I go to my bigger school three times a week on a normal week. One of those days is only a half day since I spend part of it at the bigger school and part of it at the Board of Education. At the BoE, I usually have meetings or prep time for other stuff and it’s when I have the best chance to talk to my supervisor about different things.

So far, at my bigger school, I’ve taught up to four classes in a day. The grade level and class I teach varies depending on the day. The style in which I teach also depends on the class and the Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) I’m working with that period. My JTEs are usually pretty busy throughout the day, but somehow, we can usually figure out a time to discuss the lesson before we get to the classroom. Luckily, I’m still just making my way through a self introduction lesson, so not much preparation is required. In my down time, though, I’ve been preparing and researching different warm-up games and activities that I can pull out at the drop of a hat. I’ve already been asked once at the end of a class if I had a game we could play and I set up a simple True/False question game. Once I’m done giving my self introduction lesson to all the classes, what I  teach will change based on where a class is in the textbook. One JTE has told me about how a class in the near future will probably involve us reading a story from the textbook aloud to the students.

When I’m not in class or at the BoE, I’m usually in the staff room preparing materials for games or the English bulletin board, which I’m planning on making a new display for every month. I’ve also been helping one of the JTEs make CDs of different recitations to help students with an upcoming speech and recitation contest.

So, in short, the three main things I do at my bigger school are classes, materials prep, and helping with speech and recitation contests. Helping with the contests will gradually move from making CDs to actively coaching students in their speeches, according to one of my JTEs.

The Smaller School:

I’ve only taught a few classes at this school so far because everyone has been busy preparing for the Sports Festival. There have been a couple of times when I’ve gone with one of the other teachers to just watch the students practice and chat with them when they don’t have anything to do. Aside from that, I’ve been doing mostly the same things here as at my bigger school. When I’m not in class with my self introduction lesson, I work on making materials for the English board and make any materials I might need for future activities in classes. Often, though, I get to chat with the other teachers in the staff room. Since this school is smaller, the teachers are a much more tight-knit group. That means it’s completely possible to just pause whatever you’re doing to have a quick conversation with someone (unless whatever you’re working on is urgent. But everyone seems to have a good idea of when you’re busy and when you’re not).

Sometimes on JET, school Sports Festivals will fall on a weekend and you’ll still be asked to be there. If this happens, you’ll get a supplementary day off later. However, I don’t need to worry about this at my smaller school because they planned to have it on a weekday. When the Sports Day does come around, I’m going to be helping the other teachers run it and cheer on the students. There won’t be any classes that day; it’s a day-long field day!

At my smaller school, I’ve taught a couple of special needs classes, which weren’t too different from my regular classes except the class size is smaller, and so me and the JTE are more involved with the students. Later on this month, I’m going to start teaching at a branch school, which is an offshoot of my smaller school. When that happens, I’ll start having half days in which I spend part of the day at my smaller school and part of the day at the branch school. The branch school is attached to a hospital and will have some of the smallest class sizes. From what I’ve been told, lessons at the branch school will be the most game based out of all the schools I work at.

Final Notes:

The best piece of advice that I’ve followed so far is to just be prepared. Have a bag of tricks ready to go for classes that you can pull from anytime. While I might go into several classes with the same lesson ready, I might have to teach it in a completely different way each time just because I’m working with a different teacher or because a class is more noisy or more quiet. Generally, I do the same things at every school, but the details are what make each school interesting. I’m quickly learning that the details are also what makes it so difficult to get a straight answer to questions about school life in the days leading up to teaching on JET. So that’s why the best thing to do, especially in your day to day life, is to just be prepared for anything that might happen at your schools. Be prepared and enjoy the little things. Because that’s what makes things fun.

 

 

Back to School: The First Week

As of the day I started writing this (September 2nd), I’ve lived in Izumo for one whole month. Also, as of now, I’ve finished my first week as a teacher. Before coming here, I’d never gained any formal classroom teaching experience, despite the fact that I majored in English Education for the past four years. This week was what I’d been looking forward to since I joined JET.

My first day, I didn’t get to teach class at all. Since it was the first day of a new semester and everyone was busy preparing for the sports day, there were no classes. However, there was a welcome ceremony, and I had to get up in front of the entire school and introduce myself in English and Japanese. I’m pretty sure everyone could tell I was nervous, but the head JTE kept telling me I did well. She also told me that after I did my introduction, I was officially a part of the team of teachers.

So far, I’ve introduced myself at two different schools and it’s interesting to see the differences between them. My smaller school is much more close-knit in terms of all the teachers’ relationships with each other. During my time preparing materials in the staff room this week, it wasn’t unusual for teachers to look over my shoulder and ask about some pictures of my family or my dog that I had with me. Also, coincidentally, the principal at my smaller school recently visited my home state to watch the eclipse! While I was in the staff room, he showed me some pictures he took of the eclipse and told me all about his trip.

The first two classes I got to teach at my smaller school were special needs classes; Step Class, which is for students with disabilities like dyslexia, and Jump Class, which is for students who have been diagnosed with things like ASD. Both of these classes were really small and so the self intro lesson I’d prepared ended up being less like a lesson and more like a conversation between me, the JTE I was helping, and the students. The students themselves were so sweet and charming! At one point during my lesson in Step Class, I was talking about my favorite U-Pick fruit place back home, the White House. I explained that the White House “is not the President’s White House. It’s a farm house that is white.” The JTE translated what I’d said to the students and they just said, “Oh! Trump!” and one girl began doing an impression of Donald Trump that included crazy facial expressions and big hand gestures. In Jump Class, the one student present that day kept giving me advice throughout my self intro lesson. For example, I said something about how my youngest brother loves playing video games. The student said something quickly in Japanese and the JTE translated, “He thinks you should tell your brother what days he can play video games and what days he can’t play video games because he’s worried your brother might get addicted to games.”

At my bigger school, I became fast friends with two of the English teachers and another teacher who supports newly hired staff at different schools in the area. A lot of the teachers in this school look constantly busy, and we don’t chat in the staff room as often as at my smaller school, but everyone is still really nice. So far, this is the school I’ve taught the most at; three large classes in one day with one right after the other. I got to teach with the two different JTEs that I know best and the thing that surprised me the most was how much a class could change depending on the students and the teacher. One of my JTEs was very animated. She translated what I said in my self intro lesson often to make sure students understood and the students would giggle or whisper to their friends at different points in the lesson. On the other hand, in another class, the students were so shy that they barely said a word throughout the entire period and the JTE in that class had a style that involved more activities from the textbook and only translating a few word of what I was saying.

One thing that’s pretty consistent between both of my schools, though, is that students seem far more willing to talk with me outside of class than in class. I can’t walk down the hall without at least a few different groups of students saying, “Hello!” as I walk by. Also, on my first day at my smaller school, there were two students who came to the staff room to see me because they really loved my predecessor and they wanted to see the new ALT. Everyone tells me that as time goes by, students will be more open with me, but right now, they’re going to be really shy.

All in all, this is my first experience teaching anything in a school setting and I love it so far! I like seeing the differences in schools and classes and I like figuring out the best ways to adapt whatever I’m teaching to each situation. I like getting to know students and I feel really happy whenever I recognize one of them in the halls. Both of my schools are letting me make English bulletin boards, so I have something to contribute even when I’m not in a class. On top of all of that, just doing this job for one week has gotten me excited about what else I might be able to do in the next year.

Granted, the self intro lesson I’m doing now might be the biggest lesson I get to plan, and there’s a running joke among ALTs about how sometimes, we’re basically just used as human CD players in class. But that’s one good thing about having little teaching experience up to this point; I think it would be nice to help plan large lessons and lead classes, but at the same time, I know nothing about managing a classroom and so I’m also just as happy to observe and learn. The more varieties of classes and teaching styles I see, the more tricks I can use later when I go back to the States and become a teacher there. Already, I’m starting to see how much little things can matter in a class. And I figure if I can work out how to help students enjoy coming to class within the Japanese education system (which is way more test-focused than the American education system) I can work out how to help students enjoy coming to class just about anywhere. So, in short, I’m excited to see where I’ll be next month and at the end of this year.