Mr. Paul Louis
Director of Curriculum and Assessment, Kildeer Countryside School District 96
“What did you do over summer vacation?” – this is often a question that teachers ask their students upon the start of a new school year. As teachers soon gather for back-to-school district presentation, summer plans are also always part of the discussion. While I have been able to do some great things over my summer break as a teacher and administrator over the last 27 years, this summer ranks as one of the very best. I had the best fortune to be selected as a 2015 International Educators to Japan (IEJ) Delegate sponsored by the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Chicago (JCCC). Three educators from Chicago joined 26 other delegates from across the United States, Canada and Belgium for 12 days in Japan visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Nara. Our focus was to learn as much as we could about Japan’s education system, culture, history and society in order to better serve the Japanese families transitioning to our schools and community.
I so appreciated the organization and the efficient manner that everything was handled before, during and after the trip. From the very first emails regarding my selection to the last moments of the trip, everything was taken care of down to the smallest detail. For this I am grateful that the experience was so efficiently organized and planned.
When my colleagues and I got off the plane in Tokyo, I realized in the very first steps into the airport that I was actually in Japan. While I had been preparing, dreaming, and thinking about the trip ever since I was contacted, I was having a hard time believing that I was actually in Japan. I had read lots of guidebooks about the history, culture, and places we were going. I spoke to many of our Japanese interpreters that my district hires to support students who have recently arrived in the United States to gather their suggestions about the trip. I spoke to others that had traveled to Japan for business or pleasure. I had even tried to learn some phrases in Japanese, although I was not very successful!! I was actually in Japan.
While I kept a blog for the staff members in my district and for my friends who were very interested in my adventure, I won’t go through all of the details of the daily schedule (although I am certainly glad to share more!), I will provide some overall reactions and thoughts from this amazing experience.
A Land of Contrasts: Soon after my arrival, I began seeing how Japan is really full of contrasts. While walking in Shibuya – full of shopping, people watching, and traffic –we entered Meiji Jingu, a tremendous Shinto shrine in the middle of this busy part of the city. We were all amazed at the peace and serenity that overcame us after a few steps from the sidewalk – I could not believe we were only a short walk from one of the busiest areas.
While in the Geisha district in Kyoto, seeing a traditional Geisha walking across the street right alongside business people was another contrast. The high-tech toilets and the slippers used when entering a home or restaurant was a mixture of old and new.
Everywhere we noticed how technology was used for advertising and for information. I knew how advanced Japan was in the world of technology and in the gaming world. While visiting schools, we were surprised to see so very little technology. Only one time did we see a computer lab for students. A major push for districts in the United States is to keep adding more technology into classrooms. This may be something we need to consider after seeing the very limited use in Japan and the strong results Japan has.
Respect (for others and for property): I was so impressed with the amount of respect that was evident at all times throughout Japan. I know that this is something that will stay with me a long time. On our first subway ride, respect was obvious – from the cleanliness of the station and lack of graffiti, orderly fashion of waiting for the doors to open on a train, to the quiet ride on the train.
While visiting schools, respect for the building and for each other was clearly a priority and an expectation. When lessons began, students rose and greeted their teacher. After this point, it was clear that students were expected to pay attention and to be respectful. While talking to the various principals, each spoke about the social-emotional expectations that students were to follow. This is something that my district is working on implementing in a consistent manner.
When we were invited to have lunch, students were largely responsible for the distribution, management and clean up of lunch. Students ate what was provided and were thankful. We regularly saw students use the “Rock, paper, scissors” technique to determine who would get any of the left-overs. I wonder how this entire lunch system would work in my school district.
I always thought schools can be messy places. I saw active and engaged students in Japan, but did not see typical messes. Students took responsibility to take care of the space and materials. Students accountability in keeping the school clean was evident. This is something that I would definitely like to see in my school district.
Facing similar issues: One take away that I have is that although Japan is on the other side of the world from my home, one of the things I valued the most was connecting and learning from my new colleagues and friends in Japan. It is clear that we are all really facing the same issues as humans, teachers, parents, or citizens. While our language and cultures may be different, we are all really dealing with the same issues.
I valued listening to the principal of the high school in Tokyo. He shared how the staff was working to figure out the best way for students to learn by doing action research to see what instructional strategies were going to help specific students the most. I was glad that he shared that this was something they were trying to figure out. It reminded me of all of the things we are working on in my district to best meet our students’ needs.
We learned how the population in Japan is aging. This is having an impact on society and business. We learned that many Japanese companies are focusing on the needs of aging citizens. This is a concern in the United States as well, but I am not fully confident that our aging population will be taken care of the same way as those in Japan will be.
I think the most powerful part of this entire trip was my home visit. While I was nervous at first about the whole idea of the home visit, it far exceeding my expectations. I was welcomed by a gracious family into their homes and lives. Their home was filled with their son’s artwork and books everywhere! I saw so many similarities to my own home and life. The parents were so loving and generous, but were also concerned about their child. They worried and wanted only the best for their child. The dad worked long hours and really only saw his child for a short time each day, if at all. The mom was fully in charge of their child and worried about her work schedule, homework completion, over-scheduling with activities, practicing piano, providing time for play, monitoring TV time, and the safety for her child walking 30 minutes to and from school each day. We were able to talk about how my wife and I worry about the same things. We realized that we had so much in common – love of family, pressures of working parents, and even conflicts with in-laws. I do hope that my host family and I will be life-long friends and that I will see them again.
Impressions for moving forward: Since my arrival home, I have been thinking about how to share the information I have learned. I am certain that I will be sharing many aspects of this trip with the English Language Learner (ELL) teachers with whom I work. They have expressed great interest in learning more about Japanese culture and educational systems to better serve our students. I know I will be sharing details with the administrative team as well to help them better understand transition issues for Japanese students coming to our district.
The following are some things I will want to share:
-the need to help Japanese parents understand the education system in the United States more clearly. There are some similarities in our systems, but clearly there are some major differences. (placement testing, behavior expectations, school calendar, etc.)
-More clarity about our lunch program. The schools we visited provided lunch free-of-charge for all students. This is clearly a different system in the United States.
-In our district there is a much greater use of technology in and out of school. More clarity for parents would likely be helpful.
-More clarity about extra-curricular opportunities to involve students. Our district should look closely at the offerings in our district to see if any additional activities would be beneficial.
I also understand a little more how Japanese students might feel when entering our system. We learned that it would not be uncommon for Japanese students to have a long silent period upon entering any of our classrooms before speaking as many Japanese people are more comfortable reading English compared to speaking English. I recognize the importance of our native-language interpreters even more and how valuable having our Japanese students have opportunities to speak to other Japanese students in our system. I value our district commitment to translate documents for parents and to provide interpreters for parent-teacher conferences in order to effectively communicate about their child(ren). I also understand more about the importance of placing students in the most appropriate grade level or course based on their past learning experiences and not solely on their English proficiency. We heard about the challenges Japanese students may encounter if they return to Japan after being in a different system. This is something that my staff needs to understand and be aware of.
Again, I offer my appreciation and gratitude to the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Chicago for my participation in the IEJ 2015 program.