So many thoughts swirling from last night, that I didn’t have time to finish my report before my day began today.

My 10 am departure was suddenly changed to 9:10am, and I scurried to eat, iron, and shower before leaving for an impromptu visit to the British Culture Academy, an English immersion school owned by the sister of my host father. I felt a bit edgy in visiting because of previous experiences of a “come and visit”, where I would end up teaching classes. Luckily, I was able to use my busy schedule to my advantage and make sure the time did not go over one hour.

The British Culture Academy did shock me slightly because instead of being a typical “Eikawa” (English conversation school), where students visit only once or twice a week, this school is set up for 3 – 6 year olds as a preschool entirely in English. From 9am – 2pm each day, students learn English through all activities, including swimming, math, science, and art. Students are separated by age into groups of about 6 and are in separate classrooms, decorated just as a preschool in America.

I sat in on the 3 year old class for ½ hour – and watched as the teacher asked the What do you like?, What time is it?, What is your name? type questions. But I was most interested in the commands that the children already understand – such as lie down, push in your chairs, be noisy/be quiet, etc. Three year olds are the same everywhere – so there was you usual noise, laughing, crying, kissing, hitting, and not paying attention. (But some of the disruption came because I was observing).

My second class was the 6 year olds, and I was quite impressed at their listening and speaking abilities. The first questions were why did you come to Japan? What do you do? (Try explaining philanthropy to a 6 year old.) Our conversation followed the usual questions of sports, food, activities, age, etc. But the fact that we were able to have conversation was quite impressive.

I only stayed for one hour – but had the following observations:

*The teachers had a variety of teaching experience and Japanese ability. I didn’t have enough time to ask the real questions – such as training, salary, expectations, goals, etc.

*The students had a good connection with the teachers and with each other, and the learning environment was bright, lively, and spacious.

*Interestingly there seemed to be a Japanese supervisor – making the equation a Japanese owner, supervisor, and four English speaking teachers. Something about this unsettled me slightly because I continued to notice the Japanese employees monitoring through the windows and walking into the classrooms.

*I did feel that slight tinge of exploitation – I was even asked why I wanted to visit, and my answer was, “I didn’t.” It was just planned for me by my host family – and the Japanese supervisor asked me if I’d like to stay for more as I was leaving. “Nope.” Been there and done that.

*Overall, I am very critical of English language teaching and learning in Japan. Critical because I’ve seen various situations – and I’m not sure exactly who is benefiting. However, I will say that in this case they have at least gotten on the right track of immersion – not just one class once a day, and not starting from age 12. They are working with kids from age 3.

Still there are many questions I would have liked to ask – so I’ll withhold my final judgement because of that, but I was still left with a slightly bad taste in my mouth because of the way the ‘visit’ was condusted. It was the ole “you have no idea what they are going to ask of you until you are in front of a group of kids and can’t say no. “

This GSE trip has been full of surprises and frustrations. Our team has run on highs and lows and is running out of steam. When we first had word that we’d be meeting Ms. Abe – I found myself with disbelief and a feeling of ‘we’ll see’. The schedule is always full and ever changing.

When I arrived at the Toda West Rotary Club meeting, I was still feeling the effects of the English School visit and was greeted by a not so delicious looking bento-lunch. My attitude was a bit sour – and as we set up for our presentation, hounded by men who thought they knew about technology, I found myself frustrated.

But my spirit lifted when Ms. Abe walked in the room at the exact moment that we were to begin our presentation. At that moment it was apparent that she was there to see us – not just to attend a Rotary meeting. Her speech was directed at our team – and she sat right in front of the room as we began. (By the way, she is incredible cute and well dressed.)

And what would you know, we have done the presentation over and over and never had trouble…and well, the mic wasn’t in the right spot, the A/V guy was gone, and Rotary Presidents were all over our equipment. It took a few minutes of very firm gestures to get them away from us – but by the time my presentation portion was over, things were rolling nicely. At the end, we received a nice gift from Ms. Abe and had oodles of pictures taken.

Our understanding was that after the presentation, we would move to another room for formal photos with her. But what we saw next nearly made me blow up. Ms. Abe hadn’t made it 10 feet from the room when people – uninvited – were suddenly running to have their photo with her. Women were running 10 in a row to stand next to her. She was being pushed. Folks wear above her, on the side, and below – all trying to squish into the scene. And like a good assistant all I could wonder was “where is her staff?” Never would we have seen the same situation in the United States with Laura Bush– it was embarrassing to watch. (So, I videotaped it.)

We did end up in another room for the official photo. But there again, people were running in at the last minute to have their picture with her. I really do still think we were the best behaved there – all in our suits, in a line, quiet.

And what really astonished me – is that they actually made her take that horrible bento box lunch with her. Are you kidding me?

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