Sensei

Wednesday 31st January

Today began with an early start – we met at the Town Hall at 8am, and travelled to Yosano’s Yoza Elementary School for 8.30am, to ensure we were there for the start of the school day. The school has around seventy students, ranging from six to twelve years old, so we knew we had a busy day ahead, observing and participating in lessons for all ages. As we arrived, we were told that the children were eagerly waiting for us, so after a brief introduction we hurried to the school hall. The children greeted us warmly with clapping and music, and we were asked to introduce ourselves in English, which was then translated into Japanese for the younger children. The student leader (who was a lovely girl from the sixth grade) welcomed us in both languages, before the students stood and sang a series of songs they had prepared for us. We then played games in groups, some of which we recognised from our time at the nursery school, including yet another fierce tournament of janken (rock, paper, scissors) and an adapted version of “What’s the time, Mr Wolf?”, both of which were a lot of fun and surprisingly competitive.

It was then time for me to give the long-awaited presentation of the children’s books that I had collected back in the UK – over one hundred books were collected, labelled and transported to Japan, and the majority of these were intended for children of this age. I explained to the children that I had collected the books in the UK, in the hope that they would aid the teaching and learning of the English language within the school and local community. The books were very gratefully received, by both children and teachers – twelve students were called forward to help receive the books, and there were shrieks of delight as many iconic children’s book characters were spotted among the batch. The whole school bowed in appreciation, and the students voiced their thanks in both languages, which was lovely. It was then break time, so we headed to the Principal’s office for a traditional cup of matcha (green tea), before the rest of the morning’s lessons.

Throughout the morning, the group observed and participated in the school’s English lessons, skilfully taught by Natasha; an Assistant Language Teacher from Barbados, who has been working as an English Language specialist for the Board of Education in Yosano’s Primary School’s for the past three years. The first class of the day were a group of children from the first and second grade, who began by introducing themselves in English one by one, which was incredibly sweet. We noticed that the children referred to each of us as sensei, and although we felt undeserving of the title ourselves, it proved to be an appropriate title for the day of learning, observing and teaching that lay ahead.

Natasha ran through a series of basic games to recap their previous learning, starting with numbers from 1-20 and ending with an adapted rendition of “If you’re happy and you know it…” We then played a game in smaller groups, designed to simultaneously reinforce the children’s vocabulary of body parts and direction – a member of the group is blindfolded, whilst the remaining three students verbally direct the students where to place different facial components onto a template drawing. Each of Natasha’s games was meticulously designed to maintain a combination of learning, with a sense of challenge and fun, and she deftly captured the children’s attention, interest and respect simultaneously. I noted that the children had an admirable desire to learn, which was incomparable to schooling I have experience in the UK – this was really rewarding to witness, and definitely one of the most memorable highlights of the trip so far.

The next class we observed was a mixture of third and fourth grade students, so their English Language skills were significantly more developed. Nonetheless, Natasha produced yet another series of games, activities and songs/dances to aid and develop their more advanced learning, which included a test of numbers from 1-100, the English phonetic alphabet, and various types of food. The children were equally (if not more) attentive, and the lesson ended with a fierce adaptation of Battleships, which was designed to test their phonetic pronunciation of various fruit and vegetables. As an English student who is very interested in teaching, with the possibility of carrying out placements abroad, I found it fascinating to observe and participate in Natasha’s lessons, as her unique teaching style provided me with a fresh perspective on how English can effectively be taught as a foreign language. This will be really useful to take with me into the world of work, where I will hopefully be able to put some of Natasha’s techniques into practice.

We then went to a different part of the school, where we observed and participated in a calligraphy lesson, where students are taught how to draw kanji (Chinese characters used in the Japanese writing system). This was especially interesting to observe, as it gave us an opportunity to see the students in a more traditional learning environment. The students were being taught the symbol for nihon (Japan), which seemed very appropriate for us ambassadors to learn – however, the class were all naturally very talented at calligraphy, which soon put our not-so-talented group to shame. After a few tries, and with the help of the rest of the class, we finally mastered the symbol, and we were challenged to choose a different word to learn. I chose sakura (cherry blossom), and somehow managed to pull off a half decent first attempt at the appropriate kanji, under the watchful eye of the calligraphy sensei. It was then time for lunch, so we sadly said our thank yous and goodbyes, before heading to a local restaurant for our break.

After lunch, we travelled to Kohzan Bunko, a small museum in Yosano dedicated to the haiku, a beautiful, emotive form of poetry consisting of seventeen syllables, split across three lines. We had a brief tour of the museum, which detailed the history of the haiku across several exhibitions, before a talk about the haiku poetry form; from this, we learnt that the haiku tends to discuss themes of emotions, seasons or nature. We then attempted to write our own haiku, and we agreed to master a final version before our de-briefing session on Friday (watch this space…)

We then moved on to observing the Japanese art of storytelling, rakugo, in relation to the story of Frank Evans’ time as a prisoner of war. This was introduced by Itoi Teiji, an incredibly intelligent man who is responsible for the Japanese translation of Frank Evans’ story, Role Call to Oyeama: P.O.W. Remembers. Sebastian (another Assistant Language Teacher) eloquently read the moving story, alongside a traditional artistic representation, which moved in time to the story, accompanied by music. I was deeply shocked to hear of his terrible ordeal, however I was very moved to hear the parts of the story where Frank Evans reconciles with the community of Yosano, which prompted the start of the Cultural Ambassadors Programme. This afforded me with an increased sense of responsibility to highlight the importance of the trip upon my return to Aberystwyth.

We discussed this in detail for some time, before making our way back to the Town Hall, where our home-stay families were waiting to collect us. We had a delicious meal of fish in soy sauce with rice for dinner, and we spent most of the evening talking and laughing at Japanese television, which I find hilarious (if a little cringeworthy). My “mummy” then produced a beautiful home-made cake that her and her daughter had made earlier on in the day, which was very sweet of them. By this point it was getting late, so I made my way upstairs to settle down for the night, content with the wholesome nature of the day’s activities, and excited for tomorrow’s day tour of Kyoto by the sea!

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