Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Vanishing Schools

I love that even in this tiny classroom the teacher has two desks!
It seems quite common for elementary school ALTs to work in at least one school with only half a dozen students or fewer. A friend of mine teaches at a school with one student. No matter the number of enrolled students, each school will still have a principal, vice-principal, home room teacher, school nurse and lunch cook. The school holds a sports day every year, just like other schools, even though the one student has no other students to compete against (the local villagers join in so that he can at least participate in a relay race). When he graduates there will be a full ceremony and a graduation album. This school is close to my home as the crow flies, but is high in the mountain on one side of a steep valley. You drive past a wooden shack selling fresh wild boar meat on the way there. Unlike some schools that were built for a large student body but now have only a few students, this school was built with the expectation of low enrolments. This classroom only has two desks, but it doesn’t feel sad and empty like a 40-student classroom would with two desks. Even the science labs are miniature.
Another school has existed in the same place for more than a hundred years (the building is slightly newer than that), but the pattern of living has shifted over the years and there are no longer many children living around here. There are three buildings making up the school, but we could comfortable fit into just one wing these days. The empty rooms are used for all sorts of things. We have one room fitting with couches and a little stove with a whistling kettle on it that teachers can relax in and admire the gorgeous views. Two rooms are a museum displaying artefacts donated by the local community. There are some really interesting things there.

Before electronic word-processing it was very difficult to "type" ideographic languages. This ungainly beast is at attempt at a kanji type writer.

We even have enough space to house our own version of “Beach Animal” by Theo Jansen.
The googly eyes really make it...
There are a few reasons for these schools. One is that each elementary school aged child is entitled to a school within walking distance. Another is to do with maintaining services in vanishing communities. Many of these schools are on islands or in mountain villages with dramatically aging populations. Having a school gives these communities hope that they can attract young people to come back, and also gives them a greater claim to council services (we are TOTALLY a real town, have you SEEN our school?).
My experience with these schools is that they are really great environments. The children become like siblings (or, in the case of one school I taught at where six of the twelve students were brothers, they are siblings) and they get one on one attention from the teacher that is impossible in the large classes of city schools. There is also a greater involvement of the surrounding community. It is not unusual for someone’s grandfather to wander in with a brace of fish he just caught to contribute to lunch, or some the local Grannies to teach a cooking class. My students have been taking canoeing and fishing by local volunteers, and learned taiko and other traditional arts from community members. During summer at one of my small schools the kids “camped” at school overnight and the teachers dared them to climb the wooded hill behind the school in the dark. Unbeknown to the flash-light carrying kids, local people were hiding in the trees making scary sounds, rustling the bushes and generally having a fine time creating “atmosphere”. At another school we had a huge bonfire during summer vacation after spending the day being taught how to make various things from bamboo by the local elderly woodsmen. These schools may be small, but they have a lot of heart.
Learning to make traditional toys from bamboo
The next question is what will happen to them once the last student graduates. I saw a TV programme a while ago about a creative use for an abandoned school. The elderly residents of the village turned it into a social club, using the kitchens to prepare food and the beds in the infirmary to sleep over if they got too drunk to go home. Like many abandoned buildings in Japan, the school had been left fully furnished, so the old folks were even using the left over office supplies to put on magic shows and the music room for sing-alongs. Although the image of an elementary school filled with the elderly is perhaps a poignant sign of things to come for Japan, it’s a great use of an abandoned resource.
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  1. Man, that's crazy. I've heard of the dwindling numbers in some places, but I didn't realize there were schools that stay open and operate with only one student.


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