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Friday, Nov. 8, 2002

MATTER OF COURSE

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING

Fishing for parental help on field trips


For me, a major benefit of moving to Japan was not having to chaperone school field trips anymore.

I'm sure there are parents who enjoy going on field trips with their kids, but I'm not one of them. I don't like being outnumbered, especially by little people. Riding on a bus with noisy children is not my idea of a good time.

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Unfortunately for me, it's standard practice at American schools to ask parents to help when students go on any kind of excursion. Most schools want at least one or two parents to accompany a class of 20 to 25 students, so teachers send a handout home asking for volunteers. If that doesn't work -- and it may not in schools where many mothers work full time -- teachers get on the phone. I don't think I ever volunteered, but I couldn't say no when a teacher asked me personally.

During the four years my kids were in U.S. schools, I was a reluctant chaperone on trips to an art museum, a fire station, a supermarket, a pumpkin farm, a planetarium and a colonial plantation. Each time I swore I'd never do it again. The trips weren't just exhausting, they were embarrassing. My own children always seemed to exhibit their worst behavior when I was along to witness it.

Thus, I was thrilled to learn, shortly after I enrolled my kids in Japanese school three years ago, that parents don't go along on field trips. "It wouldn't seem right to shift responsibility to parents," a teacher explained to me. So when classroom teachers need adults to help supervise, they rustle up an extra staff member. Sometimes even the principal goes along.

This seemed like a happy solution to me. Now I can send my kids off on field trips with a cheerful, "Itteirasshai! Have a good time." And as soon as the door closes, I fall to my knees and thank my lucky stars I don't have to go along.

That's how it's been until one day last month when I went to school for a parents' meeting and walked right into a trap. I had just stepped into my son's classroom when I overheard the gakunen daihyo (class parent) say, "Well, how about Miles' mother?" The next thing I knew, she asked me to accompany the fifth-graders on a trip to the Central Wholesale Market at Tsukiji. I was so shocked, I agreed.

Later, when it hit me that I'd committed myself to spending half a day with 46 pre-teens, I called my friend Sachi to commiserate with me. She told me I have the Education Ministry to blame. It used to be that Japanese students had one ensoku (a fun nature outing) per year. "Some years, they might get a bus trip to a factory, too," Sachi explained. "But now, with this push for taiken gakushu (experiential learning), schools have to organize more field trips and they need parents' help."

In 1996, an influential advisory committee told the ministry that Japanese kids need to get out more and experience the world for themselves. "Children today, while blessed with material wealth and modern conveniences, spend long hours studying. They also spend a great deal of time on television and video games. As a result, they lack direct, personal experience with nature, society and helping out at home. Yet when children experience something directly, they feel moved or surprised and it stimulates them to think about why things are the way they are," the committee's report stated.

Based on the committee's recommendations, the ministry instituted reforms to encourage more experiential learning opportunities. Our school, for example, had never organized a trip to the Tsukiji market before this year. Fifth-graders study the seafood industry and food distribution, but in past years they had just read about it in their social studies textbook.

The Tsukiji market is the biggest wholesale market in the world. In a single day, approximately 2,300 tons of fresh seafood with a value of 2.2 billion yen changes hands. It is a bustling place, with trucks and forklifts rushing every which way. We arrived a little after the busiest time (6-8 a.m.), but at any time it is a dangerous place to take school kids. I understood immediately why so many chaperones were needed. With seven mothers and three teachers along, we could divide the two classes up into small groups and move safely without too much disturbance to the people working there.

Before we broke into groups, our guide showed us a video to encourage the kids to think about the function of a wholesale market. It opened with a scene of a boy playing a video game (guaranteed attention-getter). Suddenly, he is sucked into the TV and transported to another galaxy where he meets a space princess in a nifty outfit. Her world has a problem. They can't figure out how to distribute food. Fish rots at the harbors while people inland go hungry. The boy takes her back to Japan, to the Tsukiji market, so the princess can see how we earthlings handle food distribution.

With the princess' problem in mind, my group of five kids and I wandered through the cramped aisles of tiny stalls that supply fish shops and sushi restaurants throughout the Tokyo area. We observed a new method for shipping live fish that requires little water -- the fish are chilled into a sleeplike state so they rest quietly in a crate, separated by plastic dividers. We learned that tako (octopus) is imported from Morocco. We even got to sample raw scallops, fresh from the shell.

I admit it. I enjoyed myself. Maybe because I love food. Or because 11-year-olds comport themselves better in public than the younger kids I chaperoned back in the U.S..

Or maybe it was because my son didn't embarrass me. Well, not too much. He did scowl throughout the trip, grossed out by the tuna carcasses. Still, I'd go again -- if anyone asks.

Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer and the mother of two American children attending Japanese public elementary school.


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