Friday, July 6, 2012

Kennebunk Native Writes from Japanese School

I am a native of Kennebunk.  I have been living and teaching English at a private junior and senior high school in Sendai, Japan, for the past fifteen years.  Sendai was near the epicenter of last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.  As you can imagine, our school and homes were severely damaged by the quake.
It has been more than fifteen months since the disaster and although the emotional scars of students and staff alike run deep, there has been a return to normalcy.  Aftershocks are constant reminders, even fifteen months later.  But overall things are back to a new kind of normal.
On a much lighter note, as part of my recent English classroom lessons, I have been making cultural comparisons of the summer vacation routines of American and Japanese students.  My students really enjoy cultural comparisons in general, and we often use The Weekly Sentinel as a classroom tool.  My dad still bundles them up for me and sends them overseas four or five times a year. It has provided my students enjoyment and learning over the years, and has been a wonderful way for me to share my love of Maine with my students.
Together with my students, we have written a letter.  It talks about the Japanese school summer vacation system and the education system of Japan in general.  I hope your audience will find it both entertaining and informative.

From Richard Meres

LETTER from Richard Meres and his Japanese students

As most children around the state are settling into their summer vacation routines of sleeping in, cooling off by the pool or at the mall, and watching those summer reruns, I thought it would be interesting to point out how their counterparts half a world away in Japan are spending their summer holiday.
First of all, the Japanese academic calendar is quite different than America’s.  The school year begins in April rather than late August or early September, and it ends in March rather than June.  So essentially Japan has a year round system where students join their new classes in April and move on to the next class or graduate the following March. So summer vacation is more like a midterm break and respite from the summer’s heat, than a time to clean out the lockers and say goodbye to classmates.
The length of the summer break is the most obvious difference.  Since students in Japan attend school about 240 days per year, compared with the 180 days in the United States, it goes to reason that vacation time will be shorter.  In fact, students in Japan are still in their classrooms counting down the days to the start of their holiday.  Most summer vacations begin at the end of July and continue for less than a month.
For the sake of reference here are some details from the actual school calendar of my junior high school.
Monday, July 23: Last full day of lessons
Tuesday, July 24: School cleaning day (Yes, students in Japan routinely clean their own schools, toilets included!)
Wednesday, July 25 to Friday, July 27: Morning lessons only
Saturday, July 28 to Tuesday, August 21: Summer vacation!
So, how do the students in Japan spend their precious days off?  Mostly by doing their homework.  Since summer vacation is technically an interruption of the academic semester, students get an extra load of homework during this time to assure they keep up with their studies.  Schools remain open during the break to allow students to get their work done, and it is not uncommon to see a school bustling with students over the break.
When the students aren’t working on their history reports and math assignments, most of them are putting in extra time with their school club activities.  In Japan, students traditionally join a club when entering junior or senior high school and stick with this club until their graduation.  Most of these clubs, particularly the sports clubs practice six days a week, including weekends, and practice year round.  So, the summer break offers a chance for more lengthy and rigorous training.
Although Japan’s abbreviated summer vacation, and the education system as a whole may seem a bit overwhelming from an outside perspective, you will rarely hear a complaint from students, parents and educators.  Schools in Japan tend to be highly organized, safe, and fun places for students to hang out with friends.  There is never a shortage of school pride.  The education system in Japan seems to produce students with an overall sense of social awareness and community responsibility that plays a tremendous role in shaping the fabric of Japanese society as a whole.  And this strength of character was clearly evident in the country’s response to last year’s earthquake and tsunami disaster.
On a final note, it is worth pointing out that students in our area of Japan, an area directly impacted by last year’s earthquake, will be looking forward to getting back to their usual summer vacation routine, as short as it may seem.  At this time last year our school, like many of the schools in this area, was closed for repairs and grieving the loss of students and staff.  A brief holiday of homework, club activity and quality time with friends is a welcome return to normalcy.