Inside an Elementary School in Japan

I was waiting to write this…after Tuesday, I didn’t have as much to do/prepare, especially since the middle schoolers had finals from Wed-Fri (=no work for Stephanie…). I spent most of that time preparing my March bulletin board, which should be ready by Monday, with picture(s)! As a quick reminder, I teach 5th and 6th grade at the elementary school, one grade Tues and one grade Wed, and then spend my lunch time each day eating with the students in a different classroom, starting with the 6th graders and working my way down to 1st before starting from 6th again.

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An average elementary school classroom.

Usually, there’d be a bit more decoration than this at the back, like artwork and stuff, but maybe this classroom was in a unit transition or something. Elementary classrooms usually have a phrase or something at the front with a goal for the class, or a description of the aim for the class atmosphere/personality–almost like a class motto. For lower grades, it tends to be something like, “Students who get along, and are genki” (have good attitudes, etc). I think that sometimes the students help make these, possibly at the beginning of the school year (I wasn’t here yet).

This Wednesday, I had pretty much the most smooth, perfect day of teaching ever–it was one of those days that makes you so glad to be an English teacher. I only have two classes that day, full of cute and enthusiastic 5th graders, and I really like it a lot^^ I’ll go through that day. The different parts of this post will be divided up based on lunchtime!

PRE-LUNCH

The school day officially starts at 8:15, which is the “morning meeting” before first period starts. I get to school around 8:20am. There’s an entrance where students take off their shoes, which looks like this:

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There’s a separate teachers’ entrance on the other side of the building, and that’s what I enter through. One of those little lockers is mine, where I switch from outdoor shoes into my indoor shoes, and then walk inside through the door behind me. This is all going to be wiped out soon though, because this building will be destroyed after we’ve moved all our stuff to the new building.

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① Prep period/no classes. I can’t remember now, but I probably studied Japanese using the “King of Drills” book I bought earlier. I try to go through a page each day, and make flash cards for all the words I don’t know. I just finished compiling my fourth deck, and I’m only through about half that thin little book 0____0 It’s really good, though, because while I know a lot of readings for the kanji, it’s my vocabulary that needs building. It’s kind of weird, but I can remember the reading of the kanji a lot faster than the definition, like knowing the pronunciation of a word without knowing the definition. Recently I received a paper and I didn’t get what it was about, so I telephoned my supervisor to ask about it and started reading the page aloud over the phone. It was such a weird experience, because I didn’t know what some of the words meant, even though I could “read” them, and then from the other side of the phone my supervisor was like, “Ah, I see” and explained the meaning to me. (Haha…like dream interpretation…) I guess that’s what makes Japanese fun, too.

② No class. I sit next to the math teacher, and we study the comics from my Snoopy day calendar. The elementary school doesn’t have a different teacher for each subject like in middle and high school–but it does have a teacher who helps with math, or takes over half the class for math, and the same for science (I think). And then there’s me, the team teacher for English.

③ My second class of 5th graders, which I had first this day. Normally, I’d have my first class of 5th graders second period. It’s actually a bit of an abnormal day–my schedule at the elementary school rarely changes. One time the schedule changed my first class to first period, and I was scrambling to get my prep done when N-sensei, who always informs me of schedule changes and stuff, said that nevermind, the schedule was back to normal. I was relieved, and said that that really helps because I try to do my prep first period. Since then, I don’t think I’ve had any first period classes, even with advance notice. People at the elementary school are nice :3

This week, we were learning about how to order. All the students had drawn a parfait last week, and then everyone stood up and presented their parfaits to everyone else in English (By saying: “My parfait: pineapple, kiwi, ice cream, Pocky, grapes” etc.) Some of the parfaits were really outlandish and detailed, and I asked if I could keep them. My teacher asked the students to write a title (Japanese) and their name (romaji), and I looked through them after. One was filled so high with scoops of ice cream that it was bent over in an arc down the side of the paper, and there were squiggly lines along the sides like it was about to fall over–the student titled it, たおれてもおかしくないパフェ (“It Wouldn’t Be Strange if it Fell Over Parfait”) hahaha. Another student was called “Pocky Slide Parfait,” and consisted of pineapples and strawberries doing a balancing act on the ice cream, with the Pocky drawn in wavy lines (like slides). Haha, there were so many good ones…I plan to keep them all and make a book or something.

By the way, I didn’t come up with this activity, the teacher of this class did. She’s full of good ideas, and takes activities that I bring and does cool things with them. However, I usually have her class second, after I’ve already tried the activities, and then I get to her class and think “Ahh, I could’ve done that!!” This day was cool because I was able to see exactly how she did the class first, and then copy it. All my teachers are good–I’m just saying.

④ My first class of 5th graders. Roughly the same activity. My co-teacher for this class uses English a lot–apparently he used to sit next to the foreign teacher at the last school he worked at. It’s great, because whenever I give instructions or need the class to understand something, he translates it for me. I like teaching the 5th graders because they’re enthusiastic about English, and creative^^ It’s uncool to make the following statement, but…I came into this job thinking of the textbook as the enemy, but teaching the fifth graders has shown me how the students can use both games and the textbook to learn English and have fun. It really is not the textbook but how it’s used.

LUNCH

(給食 Kyuushoku) Lunchtime! On this day, I ate with a class of 2nd graders. There are about two classes per grade level, from 1st to 6th grade (no kindergarten at the elementary school–Japanese kindergarten is sort of like American preschool). I don’t have a picture of the specific kyuushoku that I ate on this day, but I’ve taken sooo many pictures of my lunches. Usually it falls into one of two categories–“Rice + soup + vegetable,” or “Bread + soup + vegetable.” I’m not sure if this next statement makes sense, but: until coming here, I never thought of “bread” and “rice” as two things where you choose one or the other…it was always, “have a balanced meal according to the food pyramid,” and the “carb” part could be bread, or pasta, or anything else. With kyuushoku, though, I’m pretty sure it’s always been either bread or rice as the main carb.

Exhibit A: Rice, fish, etc (I don’t know what that’s called, but it’s good). This was taken at the middle school, where I get tea, too! Kyuushoku is the same for all my schools anyway, so it still works for this post. The yellow packet is vegetable curry flavoring to put on your rice.

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Exhibit B: Bread, udon, and vegetables. Those are my own personal Daiso chopsticks there. Quiz: What utensil(s) do you use to eat all this? Your choices are spoon, chopsticks, and hands–answers below (sort of).

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Exhibit C: An unusual kyuushoku. This lunch was a special dish from Malaysia or something (I’m sorry, they said it on the school broadcast, but I forgot). This must be my personal all-time favorite kyuushoku. It also doesn’t follow the standard convention of “bread or rice.” Honestly speaking, though, I like all our kyuushoku. I never look at the menu schedule, and so every day is a big surprise! Haha.

Notice also that this kyuushoku is served with a spoon. Some meals are spoon-appropriate and some are chopsticks-appropriate. Students bring their own chopsticks with them in little cases, as well as their own handkerchief/napkin to put underneath their bowls–on spoon days, the spoon is provided. Some meals require both spoons and chopsticks. Forks are never used, brought, or provided. For the below meal, you’d eat the soup with chopsticks and the potatoes on the right with chopsticks (probably).

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Just looking at this makes me hungry. This was at the middle school, where I tend to get the most food because N-san from the office sometimes gives me the extra when the teachers have all been served. There are worse ways to get fat^^

Sometimes (rarely) there is a packet of chocolate mix which you can empty into your milk bottle to turn it into chocolate. I passed on that one…I like my milk normal, and I haven’t passed on eating any foods in kyuushoku yet, even the miso natto, which was a small struggle to eat, but I figured that passing on a small packet of something that isn’t technically super healthy anyway would be okay. According to the Hi Friends textbook for 5th graders, American children have chocolate milk with their school lunches >.< Maybe it doesn’t mean every day, but anyway, take that, stereotypes!!

Another time, there was a packet of “coffee mix” to pour in our milk. I read it twice, and was like, “Coffee? Really? We’re giving first graders caffeine??” I figured that probably wasn’t right, although it would be funny if it was, and when I asked about it later I was able to confirm that it wasn’t caffeinated. Haha…

Like at the middle school, students eat lunch together in their classrooms. Some classes are quiet and some aren’t–the older kids get, generally the quieter they are during kyuushoku, but it also depends on how strict the teacher is.

As for the School Broadcast (校内放送), which is basically like announcements during lunch, there are a couple students who have responsibility for that. It starts with the students asking, 「皆さん、給食の準備をできましたか?今日の給食は…」 “Everyone, did you finish preparing for kyuushoku? Today’s lunch is…” and the explanation. Then there’s 「英語活動」 “English Activities,” which is a children’s song played in English over the loudspeaker. Right now it’s “I met a bear.” It’s kind of embarrassing to listen to and it’s really long, so I’ll be sort of glad when it moves on to a different song next month (wait…which is this month now!! Yes!!). Sometimes, there’ll be a Jpop song played over the intercom, which is often a Funky Monkey Babys song (they seem to be really popular; whenever it’s announced that a song will play, I’ve started to assume it will be them). Other times, a student will read an excerpt from a book and then say, “if you want to know what happens, you can check this book out from the school library.” There is a school library, but there isn’t like a librarian who works in there. I was told that bigger elementary schools may have a hired librarian, though.

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The school library. There are actually two library rooms–I don’t know what the difference is. Maybe one is specifically for studying…? This room is cuter, though.

After lunch, there’s usually clean-up time, where the kids clean their classrooms/the halls/the school, and I clean the teacher’s room with some of the other teachers (just sweeping up dust with a broom). (No janitors.) Wednesday is a “short day,” and there’s no clean-up time. By “short day,” I mean that the students leave school at 3:20pm. Usually, they’d leave around 4:00pm. Some students also have extra classes after school (juku), such as English, math, sports, or piano lessons. It doesn’t seem like kids are annoyed about this, though–the younger kids, at least, seem proud of the fact that they’re taking English classes after school. They come up to me and announce it, haha. It’s really cute^w^

On this day, I was with the second graders. They usually aren’t allowed to draw on the board, but because Stephanie-sensei was there and because we were all writing in English (sort of), the teacher allowed it. Students were writing their names on the board in block letters; I wrote some animal names on the board, to quiz the after-school English class students for fun, and a student was next to me writing whatever I wrote again, himself. I had a lot of fun^^

POST-LUNCH

⑤ After lunch, I visited the special needs class. Usually, if I go, I go fourth period. I don’t teach in this class–I play games with the student there that I-sensei prepares. A week or two ago, the school had a “mini-matsuri” or mini-festival during lunch recess, and the special needs class had a ball-throwing game in their classroom. The teacher moved the papers you’re supposed to hit and hung them from the ceiling at varying lengths and varying distances from the wall. The papers are worth -20, +20, +5, +1, and +10 respectively, and when either I or the student in that class hit one, he picks out that amount of money from a box and counts the amount. This week, the teacher also set up an entire obstacle course of boxes and blocks for the student to cross, with a mini trampoline in the middle! We’ll all be moving to the new elementary school building soon, and she used the moving boxes to make the obstacle course hahahaha.

⑥ Free period. I spent it organizing flashcards in the English/Japanese supplies room on the fourth floor. I really love the view from out the high-up windows. One time, I was looking out this direction in the morning, and noticed a guy playing a mini game of golf in his backyard.

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I don’t think you can see Golf Guy’s yard from here…too bad :(

(下校 Gekou) Students gather outside, listen to their teachers say a short message having to do with something they’re doing well lately or something they need to improve on, the students stand, bow, and say “sayonara” to the teacher, and then students leave for home in groups. The students leave in a different fashion when it’s rainy, and I’m not sure how that works because in that case I don’t see them off. However, there was one day where it started to rain after the students had already gone outside, and the teachers changed it and told them it was a change of plans to rainy-day gekou, and the students collectively shouted “YAAAAY!!” and started running in all directions. Obviously, they weren’t supposed to do that, they were supposed to return home in orderly lines, but I thought it was pretty funny–it’s the first and only time I’ve ever seen that.

(Teachers’ Meeting) On Wednesdays, there’s a teachers’ meeting. In the morning, everyone receives a handout with the outline of what we’ll be talking about. There’s always a 司会者/MC/chairperson who announces when the meeting starts and ends, announces each topic, and asks if there are any questions after each topic. The MC is a teacher volunteer from each grade level, going down from 6th to 1st grade. That means, if this week a 6th grade teacher is the MC, then next week, a 5th grade teacher will do it, the next week a 4th grade teacher, etc. I think it’s up to those teachers to decide who. The MC person always uses keigo (polite language) really well (no duh), and I’m always really impressed T^T Thankfully, no one would ever ask the English teacher to do it. To do that, I would have to use keigo AND understand everything all the other teachers were saying…nope, not yet. My time’s technically up at 4:15 and I’m allowed to leave, but I’ve been staying for Japanese practice, and also because the most interesting part is always at the end when Kouchou-sensei (the principal) talks about education and mentions Western researchers and draws diagrams on the board.

Speaking of Kouchou-sensei…this is unrelated, but our principal also got a hold of a bunch of hibiscus plants for some of the teachers, including me. (It was my very first hibiscus, outside of Legend of Zelda^^;) He set them out in the hallway where they could get sunlight through the windows, and it was really cute because they were all randomly lined up in a row in the middle of the hallway. Students would stop and read the names on the side, and try to guess which teacher they belonged to. I got a picture! Haha

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There’s lots of things I could share about the elementary school, but I think this gives an overview of how a day might go for me. No day is exactly the same, even without a changing schedule. I haven’t talked about the students’ other classes in detail, but if you have any questions, please ask below and I’ll try to answer them!

Song of the Day: The Piano Guys, “Paradise (Peponi)”. These guys are awesome, I got pretty distracted by their videos today @_@

3 thoughts on “Inside an Elementary School in Japan

  1. Aw man, everything sounds so cute, I’m glad the kids are so excited to learn. Also , this is my first time hearing about special needs classes in Japan, so it’s interesting to learn.

    1. It is really cute, haha. The special needs class isn’t exactly it’s own thing all the time–I think that most of the time, the students in that class are in regular classes with the rest of the students their age. They seem to just have a class or two on a regular basis with the other special needs students, or with just one student and the teacher. When I go, we usually play games like Old Maid, karuta, or lately, the ball-throwing game. I don’t organize it, though, the teacher in charge does.

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