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Friday, Aug. 24, 2001

MATTER OF COURSE

IT'S ALL DUE IN A WEEK!

Holiday homework needn't be a headache


Ever year in the third week of August, the normally crowded public swimming pool near my home in Tokyo empties out. The first summer we were here I couldn't believe it.

"What happened? Why isn't anyone here today?" I asked a lifeguard. "Oh, school starts in a week," he said, as if I had asked a stupid question. I still didn't understand, so he explained: "All the kids are at home trying to finish their natsuyasumi no shukudai [summer vacation homework]."

Although summer vacation in Japan is a scant six weeks, even elementary school students have homework during the holiday. Assignments vary by school and teacher, but my fourth-grader's summer homework is fairly typical. He has to keep a brief diary, review kanji, write one book report and do an independent project.

A generation ago, most students had far more summer vacation homework to do. But teachers today tend to feel that summer vacation is a time for children to experience things they can't during the school year. Teachers don't want to tie students to the house to complete drill books.

The assignment I like best is the ichigyo nikki (one-line diary). The main point is writing practice, but I've found that the diary assignment exerts subtle pressure on both parent and child to make good use of the summer vacation.

Before vacation starts, our school sends home handouts with advice on holiday behavior: "Keep up a healthy lifestyle during summer vacation!" "Early to bed and early to rise!" "It's not good to stay inside in air-conditioning all summer. Go outside and enjoy nature!" "Get physical exercise!" "Read books and visit museums!"

Thus instructed, a proper parent can't very well allow their kids to have diary entries such as "Slept until noon. Watched TV until dinnertime." Or, "Too hot outside. Played video games inside all day." So we visit museums and go hiking. We bike to the pool and library. The 42 days of summer vacation fly by.

Of all the vacation homework, it is the jiyu kenkyu (independent project) that strikes fear in the hearts of parents and students alike. Children are free to pursue anything that interests them. There is no right or wrong way to conduct jiyu kenkyu, and teachers give no guidelines or instructions whatsoever. And that's what makes the assignment so difficult for Japanese who are used to being told what to do.

From early July, a few weeks before vacation starts, stores begin displaying books with ideas for independent projects. "Not just for summer vacation homework. You'll use this book all year," declares the advertising for one offering: a glossy and expensive encyclopedia. Newspapers run features with ideas for summer vacation projects. And there are scores of Internet sites offering ideas and advice for jiyu kenkyu, such as one run by a camera manufacturer featuring photography projects.

Last summer, we had only been in Japan for a few months and my kids didn't know much Japanese. Shortly after vacation started, we were sitting in a neighborhood restaurant waiting for our orders. My older son, a budding gourmet with strong opinions, gave the restaurant a harsh rating because he was hungry and his food hadn't appeared instantly. I idly remarked that he should write a kids' restaurant guide. He loved the idea and was off and running on his summer project.

In his elementary Japanese, he wrote a review form. He made copies and took one along whenever we ate out. He mastered a few questions such as "Kinenseki arimasu ka? (Do you have a nonsmoking section?)" He learned to ask for a business card to tape to his review form. By the end of the summer, he had reviewed more than a dozen restaurants and ranked them on his personal scale in which fast service was as important as good taste and large portions. He had also learned some Japanese and had become more familiar with Japanese food.

When school resumes in September, kids bring in their summer projects and display them in the school lobby and halls. The projects are ungraded, but teachers and other students can leave comments on little cards. My son's restaurant guide drew a number of positive comments, particularly from teachers, who felt the project was original and interesting.

Judging by what was displayed last year, some students aren't willing or able to make the most of the jiyu kenkyu assignment. I saw a lot of pompom hamsters, last year's popular craft kit. I saw a project or two that must have been done by parents. But I also saw a few intriguing projects that reflected a child's genuine interest in a subject.

Many Japanese think the national education system doesn't do enough to foster creativity and independent thought. It is true that when my son was in school in America he did far more independent work. There, he was expected to do at least one or two independent projects every semester.

Some of the projects he did were rewarding and educational. But too often I felt that the assignments were beyond the ability of a young child. Getting the projects completed was stressful for both my son and me. We both needed a break. Thus, I was relieved to discover that the only independent project my son would do in Japanese school was the jiyu kenkyu during summer vacation.

So have my kids finished their summer vacation homework? Well, let's just say we won't be going to the pool this week.

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


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