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Are You Smarter Than a Third Grader?

JAPAN | Thursday, 11 February 2016 | Views [340]

Friday, we met up at the train station at 7:40 to go to the elementary school. In a shocking change of events, everyone who lived in the same apartment all left at the same time and arrived in a group at the train station when we were supposed to.  I don’t think that’s happened since the first day of classes, when we needed Japanese students to show us the way. So, although none of us wanted to be awake and headed to an elementary school then, (Sara: “I woke up at 5. Well… 6:50. Which is basically 7. But still! I’m never up this early!”) at least we were showing team unity.

We showed up at the elementary school, were greeted by a school official, changed our shoes, and entered a room where we could set down our stuff and our teachers could explain what our next homework assignment would be. (Basically just to take notes and send them to Yamaguchi-sensei before the weekend was over.) Then the bell, sounding suspiciously like a doorbell, sounded, and soon after people started showing up to pick up the exchange students and bring us to their classrooms. Sometimes two students would come, sometimes two students and their teacher would come, sometimes just the teacher would show up. It took a while, but eventually two third-graders and a teacher came to claim Brian and I, and so we followed them back to their classroom.

We gave short self-introductions, and then doorbell rang again, and so we all got up and went to the library. The outside of the library was similar enough to how I remember my elementary school library (or LLC, “library learning center”) to give me a pang of serious nostalgia.

Hungry Hungry Caterpillar

In the library, the teacher made some kind of announcement to the younger students (It was probably “be nice to the exchange students. You won’t need to deal with them for that long”) and sat at a desk grading papers. Meanwhile, the students ran around the library (which appeared to be only nonfiction and was organized by the Dewey Decimal System) and got books. For a while they mostly ignored Brian and me, though they’d answer when Brian asked “what book are you reading?” Then a student handed him a book to “help him practice Japanese” and a group of students, mostly male, watched him while he looked at a page of emotions and practiced the vocabulary to match the faces in the book.

I was watching this when I realized that there was a girl standing next to me. She watched me silently, even when I tried to ask her a few questions. Then other, way more talkative girls, showed up and started asking me questions. From this they determined that they knew just what book to get me, and ran off to get a book of Japanese proverbs. I opened it, skimmed through a few pages, then stopped at one at random and asked the girls what it meant. they had no idea. To remedy this, they ran off, got a different book of proverbs, and traded them. They didn’t know what any proverbs in the second one meant either.

Which was a shame, since I found a proverb that I really wanted explained. 烏は神様のお使い。The first kanji means crow, the second kanji means God, the third is the same kanji in “to use,” though it appears to have been meishified. (Turned into a noun, from the Japanese “meishi,” meaning “noun.” This is not a real word in any language, but please feel free to use it anyway.) I tried to read the surrounding pages to see what it meant, but my Japanese abilities were not to the point where I could tune out a half-dozen 8-year-olds vying for my attention. So I didn’t get a full understanding of what it meant, just a rough idea given by the kanji and the corresponding images, which seemed to show a crow holding court. There was something about it that triggered memories about crows in mythology from high school, but not memories of Japanese myth. It felt more similar to a Native American story, which made me really want to know where that proverb came from.

But the girls couldn’t help, and were giving me more books. One boy tried to interest me in his books about animals, which prompted the girls to ask me for my favorite animal, and then run off to get a picture book about foxes. (I’m not sure why I said foxes were my favorite animal, other than the fact that foxes in Japanese folklore are kind of awesome.) And then one of the girls exchanged some words with the boy, and he wandered off, and the girl explained that he liked to pretend that girls were gross, but really, he liked the girl in the red sweater over there. It took me a moment to remember what it was to be in elementary school and figure out what she was talking about.

The doorbell rang, and we went back to the classroom to give our longer introductions. Those went about as well as I might have expected them to go. (As a friend from Carthage had said when I told him I needed to give a fifteen-minute self-introduction to a classroom of elementary school students: “They’re not going to pay attention after the first person.” But I tried, and that’s all that really matters.

With those complete, we still had some time left, so we played “Fruit Basket.” And here is where years of icebreaker activities turned out to be really helpful: I might not have recognized the name, but I understood the concept right away. There are n people and n-1 chairs; one person stands in the middle and says a characteristic that could apply to people (for example, wears glasses.) Anyone who satisfies that criteria gets up and runs to find another seat. The person who doesn’t find a seat is now in the middle. And repeat.

Maybe I should have deliberately been less good at finding an open seat, but I really didn’t want to be in the middle. I managed to avoid it, though Brian made up for it by being in the middle twice. At one point he said “everyone with black hair,” and I got to sit back and watch the scramble. (In this context, “black” and “dark,” are nearly indistinguishable, and he’d meant for me to run too. But, in a room full of Japanese students with their natural hair color, my hair looks pretty light by comparison.)

After that came a more formal recess. Brian went with most of the class outside to play a game where he was a demon and they chased him, and I followed a few girls as they led me to a library. Not the same library we’d left an hour before, but a fiction library. This time, even our inside shoes were too much, and we had to take them off. But the room had sunlight streaming through the window, and the room was warm, so I could finally take off my coat. (The rest of the time, the classroom was so cold that I had my winter coat on.)

We entered the room, and one of the girls went off to find a book. She came back with what was possibly the only English book in the library, and another girl looked at the cover and asked “romanji?” (The Japanese name for roman characters. I’ve really only seen it to refer to Japanese words written in roman characters.) I responded that it was English, and then immediately realized that, even though it might be easier to read than a Japanese book would be, the point of story time with children isn’t to read quietly. It’s to read to them. And they don’t know English.

We sat down, I opened the book, and did my best to translate on the fly. It was a hot summer day, and Harold’s mother asked if he wanted to go to the beach. Harold sat up excitedly. He loved going to the beach, and he liked being prepared. So he put on his, uh… swimming clothes and… shoes, and put everything else in a bag.

And, for two pages, we got to see everything else. I stared at the pages in horror, coming to the quick realization that I knew nothing about beach vocabulary in Japanese. And neither, it seemed, did the Japanese students. Or rather, they don’t like being as prepared as Harold does. My plan of pointing to every item and asking them for the names fell apart quickly, because that was their plan. They didn’t understand the function of several items, including a dragon-shaped flotation device that was only labeled as “floaty thing.” Try to define that in Japanese.

Anyway, Harold gathered all those items, and off them went. And then they got to the beach, and Harold’s mother, umm… (flip back to the page and point at the sunscreen) used that. Harold. The mother used that on Harold. And then she asked if he wanted to swim. Harold nodded. Harold loved swimming, and Harold… uh… how did I translate “liked being prepared” last time?

I was not saved by the bell. I was saved by the girls realizing that the bell would soon ring, and they should get back to class. And so, without ever finding out if Harold was prepared enough, we put the book back and headed to the classroom. Everyone else was finishing up outside and heading back inside as well. Shortly after we were all back in the classroom, the bell rang.

Now, I want you to take a moment to appreciate the situation. I was with 5 3rd graders and no adults. I had no idea where we were, what we were supposed to be doing, how long we had, or even how to defend myself if the 3rd graders teamed up on me to blame me for being late. You put American third graders in that situation, they’re not returning to class on time. But we did.

From there, Brian and I had nothing to do except sit back and watch the class go over the metric system (how many grams in a kilogram? Write 6.3 meters in centimeters.) and kanji.

As the bell rang and the class switched subjects, Brian made a soft comment to me that everything here was so structured and time-fixed that he wondered if the teacher would even be willing to take the time to answer a student’s questions in class. Brian certainly wouldn’t want to have to deal with that.

I nodded, though that’s not the impression I’d been getting at all. Because it’s not like the bell rang and the teacher stopped mid-sentence, told the students to put away their math books and get out their kanji books. Rather, the teacher was drawing to a close, the students were putting away their books, and then the bell rang. It didn’t seem like they were slaves to time so much as that they’d internalized it. And maybe it was external and  I was missing a number of glances at watches and clocks because I hadn’t known to be looking for them. But the point remains that the students knew when to return to the classroom, and the teacher knew when to wrap up a lesson. And I think that if someone had an important question, the teacher would have taken the time to answer it. He just would have spent less time on a simpler concept, or given people less time to work independently before correcting the answer. He would have taken the time from the class instead of cutting into the limited breaks the students have between classes. And honestly, there are a lot of advantages to that.

After classes, we had lunch and clean-up. Students continued to ask me questions, and I wondered where small children got such energy. Especially during clean-up, when all of the desks were pushed to one side of the room, we swept the floor, and then pushed all the desks to the swept side, swept the remainder, and moved everything back to its original place. The kids basically had it covered, so I took the opportunity to look around the classroom.

There was a window open. Why was there a window open? More pressingly, how was there not a screen? A student could climb up onto the desk and fall out the window, unless they were being closely watched. I looked around the classroom. No one looked like they were in immediate danger of doing anything stupid and committing self-defenestration, but Brian and I were the closest thing to adults in the room. Which might have been OK if the teacher had said something like  “I’m going to go wash the hallway, can you keep an eye on the students?” Which means I’m pretty sure he’s used to leaving them alone in the classroom. I’m pretty sure that would be a liability risk in the US.

After clean-up, we stood at the front of the classroom to get a formal and synchronized “thank you, goodbye,” followed by a lot more scattered and chaotic “Bye! It was great meeting you! Thanks for coming! Come back!” as we left the classroom.

The takeaway from this, at least for me, is that Japanese elementary schools put a lot of faith in the students. A shocking amount, one might even say. But it doesn’t appear to be misplaced. The students all seemed to be mature and responsible for their age. Not unnaturally so, just well behaved and cooperative.

And honestly, when I think about why the idea of a classroom with an open window, no screen, and no teacher horrifies me so much, it’s the US that sounds weird. It’s like there’s a part of my mind that thinks if you turn your back on anyone under the age of 18, they will immediately get into the worst trouble they can. Actually, I was shocked the day I moved in and discovered that my apartment had a screenless window that opened enough for someone to fall out. Maybe I have a weird fear of falling out windows, or a boarding school surprise that some windows can be easily climbed out of. In any case, maybe it’s only my mind where open windows are associated with trust, and I’m trying to read too much into it that I’m missing the point: now I know why the classroom was so cold.

Tags: animals, classes, elementary school, library, proverbs, swimming, windows

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