This will be a several part article log that I'm writing on Japanese Schools. I'll start with elementary school, then move on to middle, high and college (with some bonus articles). I really wish the US would adopt some of the things the Japanese school system does...so my mini-disclaimer is-a generalization in my comparison with American schools. No it's not a perfect system, but not a terrible one either. There are a lot of American schools that do an amazing job, and a lot of amazing people in the profession. So without further ado, let's go to Elementary school in Japan.
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I distinctly remember sitting in my Spanish III class one day and doing a chalk drawing of one of Salvador Dali's pieces. However, my picture was smudged and a mess despite the fact I was in AP Art, why? Well, my father was (and still is) a janitor at the high school and I didn't want to get the floor dirty because I knew that he'd be cleaning the entire residue. It was then that a girl sitting next to me said I should scrap off my dust to the floor. I shook my head and said no, the janitors would have to clean it up.
"So?" She responded.
"Well, my father cleans this room because he's one of the janitors and I don't want to make a mess for him." (Coming from someone who cleans up after him on a daily basis)
"Well, it's their job to clean up the mess, and by making a mess you're giving him a job."
I kept my dust residue on my paper and the thought occurred to me later in the class as I watched the messes my classmates made and their hesitancy to keep the room clean or clean up after themselves. Yes, we have janitors, but we're responsible for the mess we make.
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In Japan, there are no janitors to clean the school (unless it's an expensive private school)-the STUDENTS clean up the classrooms, the school, and the bathroom and take pride in having a clean school. Each student is given a part of the school to clean or a task at the end of classes and once the entire school is done they can attend activities or go home. So...why can't the United States do this? I'm studying to be a teacher and my parents both work for the school system. I see students make messes and not clean them up all the time. So what if in the United States students were made to clean the school? Yes, there would be unhappy parents but think of the responsibility and pride that students would incur. They'd also probably think twice before writing on the walls in the bathrooms, leaving a spilled soda on the carpet (and yes, I have been the only one to run and grab a towel to clean up another's mess-really? Ever hear of stains?)
But I digress from the cleaning. Aside from cleaning the schools students prepare meals for their classmates. They alternate, but at least two students get the food (prepared already) and serve it in the classroom to their students. There are no cafeterias so students combine desks and eat with friends. Afterwards, the students clean up and get ready to continue the day of study.
Elementary school is a fairly easy time compared to Junior High and Senior High. Elementary School lasts for 6 years (from 1st-6th grade). During this time students can engage in a number of afterschool activities, and the core focuses isn't restricted to academics. The philosophies of their Culture (Confucius is a big forerunner) of honor, loyalty, peace and not committing Meiwaku (or a deed that shames the group) as well as socialization come into play. It's an important thing to note that in Japan as opposed to many other countries, the individual is second compared to the community-however that's a topic I'll talk about later on.
Japanese students take a variety of classes in their younger years including Physical education, Music, Art, Japanese, and other core subjects. Everyone in the class generally takes up a musical instrument during the elementary school years. Kanji is the main Japanese writing system made up of nearly 2,000 main characters. In elementary school students will learn the first thousand through rote memorization and various activities. In the book, Confucius Lives Next Door, the author enrolls his daughters into school and describes how they learn the kanji for Horse (UMA). They write it in the air, on paper, in sand and then go home and rewrite it until it becomes second nature (I highly recommend the book if you're interested in Japanese Culture).
Socialization is another key element in the early year as students learn to function as a group and less so as individuals. Outsiders who don't fit are bullied into joining the group or become outcasts (and in cases commit suicide). Teachers encourage interaction by having students work with each other frequently during activities and having them help each other during assignments. Socialization and order is highly regulated (and in some ways, seems to be discouraged in American schools).
At the end of their six years, students will have forged powerful friendships, pride and responsibility, achieved some of the highest scores in math and science in the world, and be preparing themselves for the next three years which in turn will actually be the years which determine the rest of their life.
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Stay tuned for part 2 as students enter Junior High School/Middle School in 7th grade. I covered the broad spectrum of Japanese Elementary Schools, but not their entirety, so if you have any questions on something I didn't mention feel free to ask.