Thursday, 30 January 2014

Tiger's Teeth

Poppy Thomas-Hill [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Tiger's teeth are in terrible shape. He had three fillings in his baby teeth a few days before coming to live with us. He has so much plaque built up on his teeth that I think we're going to have to get them professionally cleaned; careful attention at home isn't budging it. When I asked him about it, he said that in the infants' section of the orphanage a staff member brushed their teeth. Then, when they started grade 1 and moved into the "big" section they had a single lesson on tooth brushing after which they were left to their own devices. His fine motor skills are so poorly developed that he has difficulty writing and fastening buttons; oral hygiene was obviously not going to fare well. So, when he complained of a painful tooth shortly after coming to live with us, I booked an appointment at the dentist who also visits his school. I called and said "I want to make an appointment for a child." Now, my Japanese is sometimes strange but nothing about that sentence is difficult... "Oh, this is a DENTIST" the receptionist replied. "We don't do IVF." Right. I probably should have given up then and there. It was a long walk away, but I figured it would be good to use the school dentist because he must be good with kids, right? Yeah, not so much.

It's common at dentists (and doctors, and even hairdressers) for the initial parts of the appointment to be handled by someone less qualified. The dentist/doctor/hairdresser flits between multiple patients/clients at the same time, just dipping in to do the vital bits and leaving the rest (initial exam, triage, shampooing) to someone with a lower pay grade. It keeps the costs down, but it does feel a little like you are on an assembly line. So, my very nervous eight year old was first seated and x-rayed by a dental assistant who also prepped the tooth for filling. Then the dentist swung in and ignored Tiger's greeting, grunted in my direction without actually looking up, and started drilling (with no pain relief). I saw Tiger begin to squirm and said loudly "If it hurts, raise your hand and the dentist will stop." His previous dentist had said this, as have all the dentists I have visited in both Japan and Australia, so I don't think I was out of line. Nevertheless, Tiger threw his hand up in the air and the dentist just said "I'm nearly done, がまん。" Once finished, we were told to come back the following week. I knew it was common to do this to adults but assumed they wouldn't be so cruel to a child: the dentist drills out the tooth, puts in a temporary filling over some antibiotic gel, then the following week removes the temporary filling and put a permanent one in. Depending on the dentist they may replace the temporary filling a few times before eventually putting the permanent one in. The repeated drilling is extremely bad for the tooth but my understanding is that the dentist can claim from the national health system for each visit so dragging it out is more profitable. Some dentists can be persuaded to do a filling in one visit but charge a steep additional fee for it.

The next week Tiger was even more nervous, having had his pain completely ignored previously. Again the dentist swung into the booth ignoring both me and Tiger. He replaced the temporary filling with another temp, and said "this'll need another two or three visits." "Can't you finish it off today?" I asked. Still facing away from me he repeated in exactly the same tone and intonation "this'll need another two or three visits." Then he walked away. Tiger said "wow, that was much faster than last time!" "That's because he DIDN'T DO ANYTHING" I said loudly, "this visit was pointless." The assistant, looking uncomfortable, ignored me a turned to Tiger. "The dentist just changed the medicine in your tooth to make sure the bacteria are all gone." "Why do I need medicine in my tooth?" He asked. "You don't", I said, "but if you have to come here four times the dentist gets paid four times, so he has to make up a reason."
We walked out the reception to pay.
"Why does the dentist do that, if I don't really need it?" Tiger asked as we stood in the packed waiting room.
"Because he doesn't care if it's good for you or not, he just wants to make as much money as possible. There's no reason why a shallow cavity can't be finished in one visit. It's nothing to do with the patient's care. It's shocking."  
Normally, I wouldn't make a scene like that, but I was furious. The dentist was so rude, it was such an effort for us to walk there (it was raining and cold), and how DARE he inflict unnecessary pain on a child?
"Um, do you want me to see if we can finish this in just one more visit?" The receptionist asked. I replied in the affirmative, and magically, the "impossible to finish in one visit" filling was finished the following week.

For more adventures with dentists, click here.
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Tuesday, 28 January 2014

My First PTA

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Just before the winter break I had my first PTA meeting. We'd had observation classes and assemblies parents attended, all called "PTA", so I didn't realise that this one would be different. I turned up in jeans and a ratty old jumper (sweater, my American friends) expecting to watch the kids study for a bit then go home. I'm such a no0b to this whole parenting in Japan thing. I realised I'd misunderstood something when I walked into the classroom and all the other mothers/grandmothers were made up and dressed in their finest. After the lesson ended, there was a meeting. It was long. We all had to sit at our child's desk (the kids went home). There was a "class" discussion about the term three motto. It was a little awkward. I got mobbed by several mothers in a corner (but I think that deserves its own post). Anyway, all of that aside the first hour or so was listening to the teacher explain her approach to teaching. THAT was really interesting. I had to go to work afterwards, so I missed out on the motto discussion, tragically. We love our home room teacher very much and she will probably appear again, so let’s call her Ms. Smiles.

Social Development

Ms Smiles is focusing heavily on developing the children’s kindness and ability to communicate. In the activity we observed before the meeting, students gave presentations about a randomly assigned classmate, talking about what they were good at or some surprising thing they hadn’t know about the person before the assignment. She told us about incidents like a child accidentally breaking a bowl at lunch and his friends escorting him to the kitchens to apologise with him so that he wouldn’t feel as scared.  She explained that she always encourages the children to ask her “why” questions, even if it means they end up researching where rain comes from instead of finishing the reading assignment for the day. She also encourages the children to explain how they arrived at their own conclusions instead of just giving their answers. 


I was really fascinated by the way Ms Smiles is teaching maths. I observed a class when they were just starting to work on the times tables, and I think if I had been taught that way I wouldn’t have the issues I do with maths. She is sensitive to the different learning styles of the kids and included pretty much every sensory helper you can think of. The times tables are colour coded and the same coding is repeated on the memorisation cards and in the textbook. They used the multiplication tables to draw shapes like in this video:

They use music and do chants. They use practical examples (four kids need two sheets of paper each, how many sheets of paper should you buy in total?). The tables are tied into the way they learned addition and subtraction the year before (ie, 7 is 5 and 2. The 7 times table is the 5 times table plus the 2 times table: 2 x 2 = 4, 2 x 5 = 10, 4 + 10 = 14 which is 2 x 7). They even did a version where each problem has to be deduced from puns. It's not really translatable unfortunately.

Integrated Learning

I’ve written before about how much I like the integration of a single topic over several subject areas in Japanese elementary schools. At the meeting we were told about an upcoming class trip to the supermarket. Last year’s national maths tests showed that students performed exceptionally poorly at “real world math” problems like “You have a 100 yen coin. You buy a 10 yen candy and a 50 yen pencil. What coins do you receive in change?” Ms Smiles suggested that few elementary aged children do their own shopping and are probably unfamiliar with what denominations of coins there are. Partly in response to these test results the second grade teachers organised for the children to walk to the supermarket (it’s a really long walk actually, and up-hill all the way back) and do some shopping. The parents had to provide a shopping list and 4x 100 yen coins. The children shopped in small groups and had to read one another’s shopping lists and help locate the items. We parents had to promise to cook dinner with what the kids bought that night. The lesson included road safety, reading, navigating the supermarket, calculating the change and writing a report on the ingredients the group had purchased. Tiger was incredibly proud of himself after this activity, incidentally. 


The kids are doing skipping (jump rope) in PE and it was part of their homework for the winter vacation. Ms Smiles explained that the cross-lateral coordination required for skipping assists brain development particularly important at this age. The unit of study was called “Awaken, Skipping Masters!” (めざめ、なわとび名人!)  I’m pretty sure the kids will be doing this in no time:

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Thursday, 16 January 2014

Honda Festival

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We have a friend who works for Honda, in a research and development subsidiary. He invited us to attend the company summer festival, which I think was mainly for the families of employees (a lot of Japanese companies host similar events). Our friend competes in triathlons and is a paralympic swimmer while I regularly trip over my own feet and have to stop for a breather climbing stairs, so I’ve never given all that much thought to the fact that he is a person with a disability until we got to the festival and realised that all of the staff were also. The facility itself was amazing, from wheelchair accessible desks in the offices right through to hands-down the most accessible toilet I’ve ever seen. 

Seriously, check this baby out
In a society where differently able people are in many ways segregated (kids who use wheelchairs attend a separate school, for example) it was encouraging to experience an environment where the value of someone’s work was not being prejudged by the limitations of their body. 

On the other hand, this stunt rider from the festival is clearly TWELVE YEARS OLD!! Someone get him off that bike before he misses his cartoons!
I’ve always liked Honda bikes; I’ve found them economical, reliable and nicely styled but I’ve never felt any particular “brand loyalty”. That changed, after the festival. I’m now a dedicated Honda fan.
Kamen Rider Double Bike
Plus, Honda make Kamen Rider's bikes! Source:
 PS I think it should be obvious, but just to be sure, this is in no way a sponsored post or in any other way connected to the Honda corporation other than the subject matter.
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