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.
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.
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: