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Friday, June 29, 2001


Make it look good, now, they're watching

Once a semester, the Japanese elementary school my children attend throws open its doors and invites parents in to observe classes. Most primary schools in Japan hold observation days, called sankanbi, at least three times a year. The point is to get parents involved in their child's education by helping them understand what goes on at school.

At most schools, parents are free to visit whenever they want. But few parents do, either because they are busy or feel awkward dropping in. Unlike the school my children attended in the United States, where there was almost always at least one parent helping out in class, it's rare for Japanese parents to volunteer in the classroom. So schools bring parents in by organizing a special event.

Teachers naturally feel nervous being observed. But they know it's useful for parents to see their children in the classroom because many kids act differently at school from the way they do at home.

The school staff plans carefully for a sankanbi. Teachers want the lesson to be interesting and lively and provide as many children as possible with a chance to speak up or demonstrate what they've learned. Teachers try to call on a child just when the child's parents are in the room, but it's hard to get the timing right and remember which adult belongs to which student.

Schools want parents to observe as many subjects as possible. If math was taught during the first sankanbi of the school year, the second may be devoted to social studies and physical education, and the third to calligraphy.

At our school, sankanbi are usually on weekdays so it's rare to see a father. But about two-thirds of the mothers attend. Those who don't appear are usually at work, although some working moms try to get time off for observation days.

The most recent sankanbi, however, was held on a Saturday to make it easier for all parents to attend. (Japanese schoolchildren have morning classes every other Saturday until next April, when the five-day school week goes into effect). Our school is relatively small, with 310 students, but more than 350 parents turned up that day, at least a third of whom were fathers.

Parents received a detailed schedule explaining what was being taught in each classroom. We were free to move between classrooms as we pleased. In the third and final period of the sankanbi, a noted educator from outside the school offered a lecture on parenting.

I started out in first grade. My son and his classmates were learning subtraction while moving wooden blocks around on their desks. ("There are five cars in the parking lot, but two drive away. How many remain? How can you write that in numbers?")

Then I moved to the art room, where I watched -- with some alarm -- as my fourth-grader used a power jigsaw to cut out puzzle pieces. (In America, where fear of lawsuits looms, schoolchildren do not rinky-dink around with power tools!)

During second period, every class studied dotoku, a subject that is usually translated into English as "morals" but seems to have a broader meaning. Students generally get one hour per week of dotoku instruction and have textbooks for it just as they do for every other subject.

The first-graders had a discussion about the importance of life. When the teacher asked the students who or what was most important to them, the children said, "Mommy and Daddy." (Certainly a gratifying answer for the parents standing in the back of the room). Next came siblings, pets and food. The teacher noted that none of the children had mentioned their Game Boy. This prompted some discussion about the importance of people and things.

Meanwhile, the fourth-graders were busy with what was presented as an exercise in how to make friends. The students wrote "recipes" for themselves. One started like this: "Take a large handful of love of sports, add two tablespoons of hot temper and a pinch of crybaby . . ."

The teacher collected the recipes and read them out one by one without revealing the authors. The classroom filled with excitement (and noise) as the children called out their guesses.

I came away from this sankanbi feeling impressed with the quality of teaching. I had a better understanding of the education my children are getting. And I had a chance to observe how my children operate in a group and behave in school.

It's not always easy to watch your own child in class. I saw one mother slink out of the classroom after her first-grader acted up in front of all the other parents. Many parents have an embarrassing story about something their child did or said during a sankanbi.

Truth be told, I got a bit of a red face myself. It wasn't because of anything my kids did, but because of something I had failed to do.

During that lesson on subtraction, the teacher had to stop everything to give my son a pencil. According to the instructions I received at the beginning of the school year, it is my job to make sure my child's pencil case is properly stocked. He should have, at all times, five sharpened pencils (of the correct softness), an eraser and a red pencil for corrections. I confess I've been slack about my duty (in America, pencils are kept and maintained at school), which is how my son came to have nothing but a broken stub in his pencil case that morning.

You can be sure I'll be patrolling the pencil cases from now on. Especially if there is a sankanbi.

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

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