Forestopia

Once a week for the past three weeks I have been going on a business trip to a high school in Gokase.  Gokase is about two hours to the north of my city and is inaccessible by train.  To get there, I have to walk from work to the station, take the train to Nobeoka, and then hitch a ride with three of the Nobeoka JETs.  It’s then about an hour and a half drive through the mountains to get to Gokase.

On the drive through the mountains.

On the drive through the mountains.

The high school in Gokase is special: it’s a public boarding school.  I actually think it might be the only boarding school in Miyazaki.  The school is also a combined junior high school and high school, so students live there from the age of 13 until they’re 18.  Some of them rarely leave apart from class trips.  Even the students whose families live in the neighboring towns might only see their families once or twice a year.

I’m really fascinated with this school.  Maybe it’s because I was seriously considering going to a boarding school when I was in high school.  Maybe it’s because the students’ lives there are so different from the lives of the students at my school.  For my students, school takes up most of their time, but they still do things outside of school.  I was talking to some of the students at the Gokase school about their lives.  They all live in the dorms, they aren’t allowed to have computers or cell phones, and they rarely leave campus.  There are only a few stores they are allowed to go to around campus and the stores are tiny (complained one of the female students).

The student body is also pretty small.  There is only one homeroom per grade, about 40 students per homeroom.  The school is also a pretty high level academic school, so you have to have decent test scores to get in.  I was there along with a group of 7 other ALTs to listen to some presentations based on research projects they did.  Topics included:

  • Furoshiki: A type of cloth that can be used instead of bags or wrapping paper.
  • Firewood stoves
  • The depopulation of Gokase and other rural areas
  • Social Businesses
  • Using Satoyama Capitalism: A kind of hybrid of capitalism and bartering.
  • Forest Therapy Roads
  • Using Iceplant to Desalinate Soil

All of the presentations were given in English, with varying degrees of accuracy.  Still they performed above and beyond anything my students could have managed. The students were also incredibly excited to interact with new ALTs.  ALTs lead discussion groups of about 4 students, and the presenting students.  So each session went: self introductions, presentation, discussion, summary.  At least, that was supposed to be the structure.  Instead, it normally went: self introductions (try to stretch them out as long as possible by asking follow-up questions), presentation (that you can barely hear because the room is loud and the student in quiet), discussions (the ALTs asking whatever questions they can come up with and the students giving one word answers), and summaries.

The discussions were supposed to last 20 minutes, which was way too long.  Normally we all ended up off topic in a desperate attempt to get the students to continue using English.  I normally ended each session asking the students to recommend manga (Japanese comics) and anime (Japanese cartoons).  I have been trying to watch and read at least a little bit of each recommendation.

Today was the last day and the last two sessions.  After the break between sessions, the 1st years (13 year olds) came in.  They had spent the afternoon making mochi (pounded rice sweets) and delivered a bunch of it as a snack.  I love mochi and anko (sweet red bean paste), so I was in heaven.  I also made sure to make plenty of ridiculous faces while eating the mochi to get as many laughs as possible from the students.  I have become a bit of a clown since moving here.  It’s part of my job and I am a completely different person in front of students versus around my peers.

One of the girls from the first group I worked with came up to talk to me after all the sessions were done.  I asked her how she did on her finals and she said, “I did well.  For you.”  My heart just about melted.  I had wished her luck the week before and it made me so happy to hear how well she did.  She also asked to be my friend on Facebook and e-mail me after she graduated.  Even though it was a really long way to go for an afternoon business trip, that was an amazing way to end my day and my week. (I have work tomorrow, but I don’t have to teach any classes because it’s marathon day.)  If I stay another year, I’m really looking forward to doing the English discussions again.

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