A Visit from Princeton High School

This past week my school has been host to 23 Ameican high school students plus three of their teachers. They come from Princeton High School in Princeton, New Jersey. Though this week has been about fun and discovery for the students, I found myself also able to enjoy their visit from a unique perspective.

The first day that they were with us I invited myself along on an impromptu downtown excursion of about 13 of them and their Japanese hosts. They are responsible teenagers so they didn't need adult supervision, but my presence seemed to act as a buffer between cultures. Getting to share my love and knowledge of Japan with these newcomers helped deepen my own understanding and gave me a greater appreciation. I have often thought that I would enjoy working in a job that allows me to take young people on trips. This gave me a small taste of that and I felt so fulfilled doing it! It was nice to be there as a mentor and resource, not someone to micromanage these already independent individuals.

On their first full day of classes together, the American students were assigned a 10th grade Japanese host, who they would be following throughout the day to various classes. Some went to history class, gym class, or math, perhaps some of which were difficult to follow. Some students got a more hands-on experience by going to Japanese calligraphy class or cooking class. As I had no classes of my own that day I again interjected myself into the mix and poked my head around both of those classes. Not only did I enjoy watching how to make a simple Japanese dish, I enjoyed interacting with my own students in a new way. I hadn't gotten the opportunity to witness any other classes other than English in my experience here, so this was a rare treat. I think my own students were excited to have me around in a different context. It gave them a rare opportunity to use their English in a real setting.

On the morning that they left, their student hosts had a small send off gathering for them. I watched happily as I saw each American student pair off with their Japanese counterpart to embrace and talk with them one final time. It was nice to be exposed to come of my own countrymen for a short time, but their visit also inspired a whole new wave of experiences for my here in Japan. I also got to experience new things and gain a deeper closeness with my own students. I have to say this has been the best week I've had in Japan. I was so happy that everyone involved got to have this valuable experience.

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Visiting Tea Ceremony Club

Continuing on my visitation rounds of after school club activities, another one that had long on my list is tea ceremony club. Japanese Tea Ceremony is a time honored tradition that dates back 1,000 years and has its roots in Zen Buddhism. 

When watching tea ceremony performed one can notice its zen-like nature. It is a process of preparing a small cup of matcha tea for a guest in a series of deliberate and time preserved movements. The result is a relaxing experience for both the preparer of tea as well as the guest and getting to enjoy a cup of tea made from the heart. 

This ceremony can be observed in tea houses given by long practiced women and men, dedicated to preserving this tradition. Its influence permeates the culture so broadly that many high schools, including mine, have an after school club dedicated to it. 

When I entered the special room used for this club, many of the club members looked on me with excitement that I would be joining their activities. I saw many students that I teach in class and many other students that I didn't already have a relationship with. We sat down on our shins to listen to the instructor's opening lesson. The two club advisers were not teachers in my school so they were not acquainted with who I was. With the whole room looking on I introduced myself, as I didn't exactly blend into the background of the activity going on. 

Watashi wa Alex desu. "I am Alex". The whole room up-roared in astonishment! One of the few rare moments my students have heard me speak Japanese. Throughout the entire ordeal I heard many girls squeal kawai'i!  or cute all aimed at me. 

From what I could glean from the adviser's opening statements (the bits she said in English) is that tea ceremony is about peace, respect, and tranquility. All these girls (and one boy) were learning an art that takes years to perfect, not only the movements, but the atmosphere as well. The students went through a few rounds of practice serving tea to one another, including me. Being served tea in this way almost feels a bit like being pampered. 
The teacher seemed rigid with the students, correcting mistakes in movements as they came up. I had actually been to a tea ceremony class before, for adults, and the strict teaching atmosphere seemed a bit tense. While this atmosphere was also a teaching one, it was clearly a safe space for high school students. At one point a girl dropped her bamboo whisk into her tea bowl. As she froze in shock the rest of the room, including the adviser and me, all looked at each other and burst out laughing. 

Some of the utensils used in tea ceremony 

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Trying Calligraphy

An element of Japanese culture that called me to Japan has always been calligraphy. The smooth, thick, brush strokes that make up words have always tugged at my fascination. Calligraphy is a subject my students learn in school, and for those with a strong interest in it, they can join the after-school calligraphy club. 

Visiting this club has been on my Japan life list since the very beginning. Just recently, I got to have that wonderful experience. 

When I entered the room the faint smell of the black ink filled it completely. A small group of about eight girls awaited my planned arrival and they ushered me to the seat they had set for me. I felt a bit like royalty as they all centered their attention completely on me and my experience. Roles were reversed as those who were my students by day, suddenly became my teachers by night. Together they collectively pooled their English ability to communicate a hard and fast calligraphy lesson to me. 

We started with the basics. I practiced a few of the basic lines and was taught how to hold the brush correctly. As time went on they added more and more best practices. Lines of communication were formed through a mix of short phrases and words, drawings, and gestures. Easily enough I was able to follow all their collective knowledge. 
After some practice with the basics we moved on to some words. Japanese calligraphy is written in Kanji (Chinese characters) and makes up words written in Japanese. The girls wrote the characters in front of me so I could see how it was done. They gave me several sheets of paper to practice on before I would be doing the final one of a thicker piece of patterned cardboard. 

With each practice round the girls gave me more and more hints. They wrote down the stroke order and wrote me notes for what I was supposed to do with my brush. Though I could never make it look exactly like theirs, they praised me all the same each time. 
Watching someone do calligraphy proved much more relaxing than actually doing it. Watching the girls  make the smooth, fluid strokes had a calming effect on me. Though when it came time to do it myself, it induced a little stress. However, at one point one of my teachers took my hand in hers and guided me through the strokes in a team effort. Being enveloped in all their collective desire for my success made me feel warm and positively connected. 
I was excited to for them to give me this cultural experience. Though I enjoy teaching in the classroom, I so much enjoy these extra moments outside of the classroom to interact and connect with my students. They got to use their English in a real world and practical way, talking about something they loved. They had a moment to see their teacher in a different light. I got to be humbled and learn something from girls half my age. I won't soon forget their kindness.

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Valentine's Day in Japan

Valentine's Day is fully present in Japan, but the gifting process is a bit different that Westerners are used to. Relax men, you don't need to buy anything! That's right all the chocolate gets given to you! 

There is a long standing tradition in Japan that girls gift chocolate to boys. There are two different kinds of chocolate gifts. Non-romantic chocolate given to friends, co-workers, and other acquaintances. Then there is romantic chocolate given to a boyfriend from a girlfriend. Many girls and women make the chocolate or sweets themselves, as it is considered a more true attestation of love than buying chocolate in a store. 

But there still is much store bought chocolate to be found. A few weeks before Valentine's Day I saw pink and red heart shaped boxes popping up in many grocery stores. 

My school was festive on Valentine's Day. I could see many treats being given, mostly from girls to their girlfriends as tokens of friendship. In my two classes of the day, I presented all the students with a small piece of chocolate (store bought) and they were excited to receive it. A few other girls presented me with small handmade baked treats that were individually wrapped or bagged. 

On the chalkboard pictured above, the girls of this class came in one hour before school began to compose this masterpiece. During the break time in that same class the girls told the boys to look under their chair, where they had taped a bar of chocolate for each of them. 

Think the boys need to step it up? They will have their day, one month from now on "White Day", March 14th, a Japanese holiday where boys give chocolate to the girls that gifted it to them on Valentine's Day. The color of these treats is often white in coordination with the name of the day. 

While each of this holiday's are cash goldmines to confectionery companies it's still very cute to see my students expressing their love and admiration to each other as well as their teachers. 

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English Speech Competition

Every year there are numerous competitions held in English for Japanese students to showcase. their English ability. Recently I had three students take part in a speech competition. The participants in my school are part of the after school English club so they enjoy learning English and participating in competitions which use it.
This was the third speech competition I have counseled students in since arriving last August. My students have also participated in a national debate competition and a 30-minute play competition, all in English.
When students begin preparing the for speech competition they first think about an issue they are interested in talking about. Once they have that issue in mind, they should start drafting ideas in Japanese to begin adding the body to their speech. In this most recent speech competition my students came to me with ideas jotted down in Japanese. At this point is it best for them to work with their Japanese English teacher, with whom they can better communicate, to get their ideas down in English.
Ayaka choose to write about the importance of space exploration, Fuka about the use of therapy dogs in hospitals, and Megumi about women and the glass ceiling.
Next I can correct any grammar troubles they are having and help the speech to sound more natural and fluent. Once their speech is completely written and there are happy with the product they begin the process of memorizing it. Students in my school, and Japan in general, are exceptionally hardworking and studious. They read over the speech time and time again to commit it to memory.
Then they begin working with me, performing the speech out loud, so I can correct any unnatural pronunciation they have. They have a goal of making it sound as natural as possible. We also work on natural gestures, volume, speed, and inflection which gives their speech character.
On the morning of the competition we found out there were to be 16 speakers total, all in grades 10 and 11. Each speaker had between 4 and 5 1/2 minutes to speak and would be docked points for being over or under the time. The speeches must be given from memory and they aren’t allowed to look at their script while at the podium.
A few of the speakers had moments of silence as they lost their place in their memory and quietly mumbled to themselves to get back on track. Some speeches lacked some organization and as an audience member is became hard to follow the point. Others didn’t speak loudly or clearly enough.
Now you may call me bias, but my three students did spectacular! So spectacular that my girls took 1st 2nd and 3rd place out of five prizes to be won. I think everyone in attendance from our school was shocked at the wonderful result we had received. We were all so incredibly proud.


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