Yesterday (January 8th), I got a rare privilege: the chance to see what school is like on an overseas military base. I visited Lester Middle School on Camp Lester* in Chatan, Okinawa, along with a large group of people, including the principal of Baten Elementary School (one of the Japanese schools I visit every week), one Baten teacher, the entire sixth grade of Baten, and another ALT (assistant language teacher, which is my job title here).
When we arrived on base, I thought there would have to be a detailed check of every name, every student, and every adult ID, but because we had prepared for this visit months in advance and because Baten does this "visit exchange" every year, we were waved in right away. (This is quite different from when you go on base as an individual. That can be a somewhat lengthy process with lots of ID checking and paperwork.) I look forward to later in the school year, when the American students will get the chance to see a day in the life of Baten Elementary! I think many mutual surprises are in store for everyone. (See my previous post on my observations of the differences between Japanese and American schools.)
Every Japanese student was partnered with a Lester student, and for a few minutes both groups of kids got to bust out the self-introductions they had been practicing. The Japanese kids had worked on sentences like, "My name is...," "Where are you from?" and "Do you like... (fill in sport, food, or school subject of choice)?" I didn't expect this, but some of the American students had also tried to prepare a few sentences in Japanese! That was a lovely surprise. Then each pair went on a short tour of the school and then right into their normal class schedule. Whatever class the American student had at that time is the one the Japanese student got to attend. Some were able to see and use the American students' laptops, since Lester MS recently began a 1-to-1 laptop program this past fall for all students in grades 6-8.
While all this was going on, the adults got to meet with the Lester principal and the registrar, who is Okinawan herself and was there to interpret for the Baten principal and teacher. We learned about their enrollment and the fairly high turnover they have in the student body each year as families come and go. They're a fairly large middle school, with about 450 kids currently attending. Another interesting fact we learned is that the government has recently added more counselors to their staff since the kids' parents are being sent on more and more deployments and are often gone for long periods. This surprised me since, in my ignorance about the military, I figured if you were already overseas, then that was your assignment for the duration!! I didn't realize you could be deployed yet again from an existing deployment here in Okinawa. Military kids clearly have a different set of challenges and concerns than the kids I'm used to teaching in the States. We also found out that many American kids seldom or never even leave the base while their parent or parents are stationed overseas, so this experience may be one of a very few where they actually get to interact with native Okinawan people.
Lester MS is pretty much like any middle school you'd see anywhere in the U.S. They do have some cool classes you might not see everywhere, though; they offer Japanese culture (taught by a native), applied technology (which includes things like robotics, engineering, and video production), and Chinese and Spanish for foreign languages. Their library, I was pleased to see, had many of the latest hot titles my own U.S. sixth graders love, and I noticed that lots of the American students had copies of various Diary of a Wimpy Kid titles, thus proving that series' universal popularity with its target audience! That day the students had been holding a geography bee in the library, complete with professional cameras and recording equipment so the event could be shown via their school broadcasting station.
Then we all had the adventure of a lifetime: Lunch in a middle school cafeteria! The Japanese students had never had this experience before, so it was a lot of fun to see them gamely trying the milk (pasteurized, unlike the milk at their own school and homes), the lasagna (surprisingly good), the pork tacos, and the frozen fruit desserts. Some Lester students were doing a survey for a class project, so the other teachers and I helped them out by answering a question or two.
I wished the adults could have lurked in the background with the kids so we could see the interaction between the Japanese students and the American students in more detail, but we went on our own tour and mostly stayed separate from them. I did see some partner groups actually conversing, and when we took our group photo at the end, everyone looked really happy and excited. So I honestly hope both sets of kids had a great experience and genuinely took the opportunity to use their language skills and build a small cultural bridge.
*On the school's Web site, I just learned that the man for whom Camp Lester is named is from Downers Grove, IL!! Imagine that! :)