Thursday, July 19, 2012

Japanese High Schools in the Modern Age

Japanese high school
The genkan area.

High school in Japan is so very different from Canada, and not just because I graduated more than ten years (!) ago. The two schools I attended as a teenager were technologically on the cutting edge, and we had a beautiful computer lab where I used to check my email at lunch every day (Yes - it was 1999!), a media room and a modern cafeteria, and LCD displays in the halls so students could read the daily school news. As a student, I learned Microsoft PowerPoint by helping my friend with the daily media broadcast. Of course, students of the 2000s would be hardly shocked by such a level of tech, but for those of us who grew up without Internet-connected computers at home or cell phones, it was the height of modernity.

Japan was a bit of a nudge backward after my arrive in the mid-2000s. I remember my dismay when I took the tour of my school and realized there was no public computer lab, and just two general-use Windows XP laptops for the English department to share between 20 teachers. As an expat excited to document her adventures, and soon enough struggling with homesickness, the Internet had become my lifeline. I needed access. (This was after WiFi hotspots became a thing in Japan, but before they were affordable.) Luckily, the department kept one of the general-use computers on the desk next to mine, so I could pull it over and use it whenever I wanted. Which...was a lot, given that there wasn't a lot of prep work for me to do when the students were on vacation. I spent quite a lot of time on Wikipedia, Canadian news websites, and eventually, teaching myself the sport of basketball from the ground up. One day I came to school and, bless whoever in the IT department allowed this, discovered that laptop had moved permanently to my desk, and a new third one sat in its former home on the public desk. My JTE, my lifeline, had arranged for it.

Computers in Japanese high school
The department's general-use computers, scanner and printer

My neighbours occasionally indicated that they thought I was a little unsociable, and I realize now that this was a gentle hint, but my sanity was spared. Sorry, everyone.

Anyway, at my school, things worked much like they did when I was in elementary and junior high back home. Most of the time, this was just fine by me; it's not a criticism. We used overhead projectors, analog clocks. 

My biggest problem was, bar none, the lack of insulation and heating. Mind you, this was not an issue unique to school; I battled frozen extremities at home, in the train station, and really most other places as well. I was shocked how unaffected my co-workers and students seemed to be by the temperatures that totally immobilized me! To stave off the cold, I had an enormous gas stove in my classroom, which needed to be hooked up to the gas outlet in the wall and turned on a minimum of twenty minutes before the lesson. On days when my prep work took me right to the bell, myself and the students could hardly function for the first half of the lesson, so I often spent entire mornings in my classroom, reading books and breathing gas because I truly felt it was better to tolerate a gas migraine than be so cold. In the staff room, my desk was also by the window, which we kept open year-round so that the air could circulate...even in February, that window was always open. 

The school was built in the 1960s, and had a definite 60s feel to it that I loved. There was a staff photo pinned to the cabinet behind where I sat that was dated the year Heisei 6 or so (1994: 2012 is Heisei 24) and showed the school exterior painted a vibrant hospital green. We had a chalkboard in the English department that had the names and addresses of JETs long, long gone written there - I wish I had taken a photo of this before I left. My phone number was written there for years, and might even still be, since it had been handed down year after year with the apartment. I was always on the lookout for 'vintage' things at home and away, and school occasionally delivered. I loved the sign in our lounge citing the rules, dated 1984, that hadn't faded or yellowed a bit.

I thought much of the charm in my school lay in its history and when I visited Emily's OO N High School on multiple occasions, a building not even 5 years old, I knew I preferred ours, even though she had air conditioning and heat in the staff room!

High school in Japan
A familiar hallway
This entry has turned into a bit of a ramble, but when I think about how high school here in Canada must have evolved since I graduated (I hear my alma mater now auto-emails parents whose children have not shown up for school, and all papers submitted must be typed rather than handwritten) I'm glad that Japan wasn't a shock for me in this way. My students didn't work up any fancy Photoshop projects, and they handed all their homework in hand-written. I kept my grades in a register book, not on my computer. The kids all had cell phones, but rarely did I see any other technology in class - sometimes someone would have an iPod tucked into their blazer as they left, and there was a huge hubbub over a student who got an iPhone when it first launched, but lunchtime was usually for socializing with friends! I knew by name the only girl who brought her Nintendo DS with her to school every day, because she once asked me to bring mine so that we could play together.

Maybe the reason was because the prefecture couldn't afford fancy computers and LCD screens, but I prefer to think they were subscribing to the "we got along perfectly well without those things up until now, so why does it matter?" logic. I'm no technophobe, but I found it refreshing that my school was so down to earth. Even though we have had all these great advancements in tech that have become ubiquitous in the west, they are sometimes still seen as distractions in Japan. In my school, and I suspect this was true of many Japanese schools, we kept things simple. We had rocks, and we liked 'em! 

And when I was your age, I walked 4876234 miles in the snow to school, barefoot and uphill both ways...