Recently, I had an incredibly unique professional development opportunity. My principal asked if my family would host an exchange teacher from Saitama, Japan through the Richmond Sister Cities Commission. After some discussion we decided we would do it. Through the experience I made a new teacher leader friend even though Shoko had never heard of those in Japan. Before this experience I had never wanted to travel to Japan. Now, I hope I get the opportunity, especially to improve my understanding of how schooling is done in Japan. This is what I learned from my friend Shoko.

Shoko shared some videos of her classroom in Japan with teachers and students in our school. When I watched I was seeing through her eyes. I was delighted.

Yes, it looked like 1986. The tables were in rows. Each student sat facing the teacher. My friend wrote on the board. She turned and asked a question. Every student in the class sat up straight and raised their hand. When called on, the student stood and shared an answer. Then several peers congratulated her or him. The teacher nodded and smiled. There was much laughing and smiling. There were some heads on desks but, when the question was asked every student was involved.

That struck me.

Looking at this classroom from an American viewpoint it was stifling. Students did not engage in many of the standard constructivist approaches that are so loved by teachers, if not policy makers, here in the USA. Students did not talk to each other, work in groups, or collaborate.

Then the scene changed and students were serving their classmate’s lunch. They carefully served and thanked each other, cleaned up, and brushed their teeth. The next scene was of students sweeping the floor, mopping with small white rags, and putting furniture in its place when done. The class worked as a seamless team. It was beautiful.

Finally, there was a scene of the second grade students teaching the first grade students what school would be like for them. They taught them how to feed the pet gerbil, take care of the class, and put things away.

There was a sense of joy throughout the whole film.

My friend, Shoko told me, “In Japan every teacher must teach the same way. You have to teach and then are asked questions about what you taught. The curriculum is the same in every class. The teachers’ all teach the same.” Later in our discussion I asked, “If students don’t learn who does the parent hold responsible? The teacher or the students?” She replied, “The students.”

This experience left me with the question I often ask myself. What does learning look like? How much of that is cultural and how much is based on prior experience?

If I were to look at my friend’s video without having actually taught it might have looked stifling, controlled, and boring. But I have taught. In my class we do many of the same things Japanese students do. We serve used to serve each other lunch, clean our classroom, and do things as a team. Those experiences make it so much easier to get learning done even though they aren’t academic because we are more focused on the group than the individual. Even this morning it only took me a simple clearing of the throat and a slightly loud, “Ok!” to get all my students’ attention. And they were smiling just like the students in Japan. These activities were not academic but they were intentional. I wonder how much of our focus on individual assessment has robbed us of our community.

Our visit with my friend Shoko was wonderful mostly because it challenged me. As I mentioned in my last post, it was uncomfortable so I knew I was learning. It also left me with a question. How can we be intentional with non-academic activities in schools and what do our unconsidered (hidden curriculum) processes communicate to students?

Check out this additional video for more information on Japanese education. In the video I might even say that in Japanese schooling the hidden curriculum is not hidden but the true goal of schooling.

The title is a reference to our family and Shoko’s mutual appreciation for anime and Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro or My Friend Totoro in the English release.



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