Thursday, March 01, 2007

Yareba dekiru

I’ve been inexplicably tired, both physically and mentally. It prevents me from being the person I want to be, which is someone who spends more time on her lesson plans and always cleans her house and washes her dishes and does her laundry, and perhaps most importantly, writes about the absurd things she encounters every day. I turn sentences over and over in my mind with plans to turn them into something. I compose in my mind but it stays fragmented in my Word document. I have a file filled with fragments that may never become anything. I have a nearly finished entry about the Japanese social attitudes toward breasts, that I’m sure would delight a good portion of my readership if I could just piece it together. I don’t work nearly as long of hours as Yoshiko or Sayaka, but my average of three classes every day leaves me psychologically exhausted. Furthermore, I’m feeling very conflicted about my work.

I work at a juku, also known as a cram school, also known as the place kids go after their nine hours of school are finished to prepare for entrance exams and other important tests. Usually I work at the English conversation section of the school, which just means I teach functional English for speaking and writing, almost entirely in English. Recently, all the teachers have been completely swamped due to entrance exams, so I’ve taken on extra work as well. I’ve been helping third years in junior high school prepare for the English listening and grammar portions of the high school entrance exams. Things are done quite differently in the genuinely juku part of the juku. I was vaguely aware of it before, as I sometimes taught in the same room as some of these classes. I knew about the academy chant, but never used it because we don’t do that shit in Amurrca. At the beginning and end of every class, the students put on these ninja headbands, stand at attention and repeat, “Yareba dekiru! Zettai dekiru! Kanarazu dekiru! Dekinai koto wa nai!” This translates approximately to “Once I’ve done it, I can do it! (not actually so weird-sounding in Japanese) I can absolutely do it! Without fail, I can do it! There is nothing I can’t do!” Since entrance exam season began, they’ve added a new portion to the chant: “Koukou gokaku! Zettai gokaku! Gokaku, gokaku, gokaku!” That means, “High school, success/pass! Absolute success/pass! Success, success, success!” Then all the students bow and sit down. After that, the teacher covers his or her content along with a healthy mixture of encouragement, threats of failure, and even bullying. You know, enough to make them emotionally confused and terrified of failing.

I’ve been experiencing some cognitive dissonance about being involved in this world. On one hand, I have to do my job. On the other, my job is being part of a system I completely disagree with. I have various reasons that I’ll try to break down into points.

1) The tests are stupid and inaccurate measures of ability.
These kids cannot speak a lick of English. Seriously, they can barely tell me their names, yet somehow, they are able to take these tests that use fairly complex grammar and vocabulary. The reason is, you don’t need to know English to take these tests. You just need to know how to take a test. What keywords to listen or look for, things like that. You never need to form any sort of original sentence. Furthermore, the tests, and probably English education in general, fail to present English as having any functional value. The English dialogues and reading samples are obsessed with Japanese culture. Often, they involve explaining Japanese words or customs in English. Why the hell would Toshio and Haruki be speaking English to each other in the first place? A common motif is a Japanese student explaining something to an ignorant foreign ALT, who concludes the conversation by exclaiming that Japan sure is great. Japan is completely obsessed with itself. I thought my boss was being absurd when she asked me to have an English conversation class while translating a tea ceremony, the most Japanese thing possible. Teachers wonder why their students don’t care about learning English. Could it be because they’re teaching them things like how to understand Shinkansen announcements in English? Um, the Japanese announcements come on first. If that’s the only way they know how to make English useful and relatable, it’s no wonder they don’t care.

Remember how when we were young, we found out that standardized tests have a racial and regional bias? Hey, native speakers, check out these real test questions from last year. You’re supposed to choose the picture of the thing they’re talking about.

No. 1
John: Kayoko, it's cute. Did you make it?
Kayoko: Yes, John. We're going on a school trip tomorrow.
John: I hope it will make tomorrow's weather good.
Question: What did Kayoko make?

No. 2
Judy: Akio, what does this kanji mean?
Akio: It means "rice", Judy.
Judy: Oh, does it? That's strange. I thought it was the name of the country.
Akio: Oh, yes. It also means your country.
Question: Which country does the kanji mean?

How did you do? I knew the second one from studying Japanese, but I had no idea about the first one. I still don't know the explanation behind it. The answers are c and a, by the way. Still, these sorts of questions pretty much make it impossible for many immigrants and children of migrant workers to succeed in school. Which relates to my next point of objection.

2) The tests help to keep the rich rich and the poor in their place.

It sounds like a leap, but if one can only do well on these tests by paying a juku, then the kids who get the best educations are limited to the ones who can afford to pay a juku. Thus, those who can’t are screwed.

3) The fact that kids have to take these tests is stupid and pointless.

I can’t speak for the other subjects, but I know the tests do not help them learn English. They do help them lose sleep and occasionally throw themselves off bridges. One reason this system is still holding on is that it’s great for indoctrination. These kids have to spend all their time together studying. During test season, the third years go to the juku from 9-5 every Saturday. But I have to clarify something. While the kids take tests very seriously, they’re still little bastards in the classroom. That stereotype about the disciplined little machines that are Japanese students is really not the case. If anything, the constant studying at cram schools makes their behavior even worse.

Anyway, in January, the kids went for a three day retreat at a mountain lodge… to study from 8 AM to 9 PM. My Japanese tutor was one of the teachers who attended the retreat. When she described it to me, adding that they occasionally took breaks to do arts and crafts, she said, “[It was very fun.]”
“[I see,]” I began in my halting Japanese, “[The kids, did they have fun?]”
“[It was VERY fun]” she reiterated.
At the time, we were looking at the memory board with the blown up group picture from the excursion. The kids were all wearing their ninja headbands and making “yareba dekiru” fists. Each had written a note on the memory board, thanking the teachers for the experience and repeating stock phrases about how they know they can do it if they put their mind to it. Some of those kids will fail. Some of them have already. Not long ago, I had to console two sobbing twelve-year-old girls. My students, the only two taking the entrance exams for junior high school found out they both failed their first exam moments before taking my class. Granted, one of the sobbing girls was not one who had taken the exam. One of the girls, Tomoka, started crying, then another girl in the class began crying hysterically in sympathy. That day when I asked them “How are you,” I taught them, “Not so good.” Twelve-year-olds already have plenty of reasons to cry. They don’t need any more help from these idiotic tests.


Anonymous pthompso said...

I was going to comment that we don't have any of that kind of high pressure indoctrination of kids going on in this country. But...I just finished watching 'Jesus Camp'...

12:29 AM  
Blogger Carol said...

god, and I thought our educational system was messed up! It's too bad that they don't actually teach the kids English, although why they actually need it, I don't know. I think we're all going to be learning Chinese.

I am glad you're there to teach the kids something I feel not so good. It has to help some.

Love ya, love your posts...try not to be too hard on yourself about the house. I have to do the same thing. some of us just aren't made to be maids.
Paula & I found a coffee mug that said, "I woman can be happy without a man, but not without a MAID." Love Mom

1:23 PM  

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