Friday, October 31, 2008


Today was the final day of my Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program experience. It’s hard to believe that three weeks have passed so quickly! It feels like just yesterday I said good-bye to all of you, the students and faculty at Lincoln School, and then said hello to all of my new JFMF teacher friends. For the past three weeks they have been just a few doors away and now it is time for us all to go back to our families, friends, and schools in our home states. I miss each of you so much and can’t wait to see you next week! (I am sorry that I will not be at school to celebrate Halloween with you.)

When I first started this blog, after much contemplation (careful thinking), I decided to name it 旅 – JOURNEY. On my final night in Japan, as I reflect on the experiences I have had, I do not think that I could have picked a better title. The JFMF program has truly been the experience of a lifetime. I think that I am only now just beginning to realize the many ways in which it has impacted me as a person, learner, and teacher. While the physical journey concludes this week, the educational journey has only just begun. I look forward to sharing all that I have learned with you during the coming months.

This evening JFMF hosted a Sayonara buffet. We laughed and cried together as we thought about all of the fun times we had shared. At the end of the evening we sang Auld Lang Syne, which in Japan is a traditional graduation or closing ceremony song. Then some teacher friends and I went to see the Tokyo tower lit up one last time. As I looked at the tower reaching towards the stars, I thought about my long flight home. Sayonara! See you on Monday!

I would like to thank the Japanese government for sponsoring the JFMF program and the Caldwell-West Caldwell Board of Education for allowing me to attend. I so appreciate the MANY people who helped me prepare for the experience and helped care for my students while I was away from the classroom. I particularly need to thank my long term sub, Pauline Condon, and my teaching partner, Lisa Zevin. You are the best! Also, I would like to thank Mr. Williams for first telling me about the JFMF program and for guiding me along the way. Thank you!

Home Stay

Saturday afternoon was the start of the long awaited home stay. Honestly, I was very nervous as my teacher friends and I waited for our host families to pick us up. In a way, especially since we were so far away from our own families, we felt like we were being adopted!

Sazuko, my host family “mom”, arrived and warmly greeted me. We packed my many large bags into her car, which was smaller than my American car. The Hasegawa family lives just a few minutes from the center of the town. During the short drive to her home I sat in the front seat on the left side, since the steering wheels on Japanese cars are on the right side of the car. (In Japan people drive on the left side of the road.)

When we arrived we unpacked the car and headed into the house. I noticed the house looked a lot like my own from the outside. There was a paved driveway, a garage, a lawn with grass and a persimmon tree, and a house with doors and windows. When we entered the front door we were warmly greeted by the entire extended family. Like many families in Japan, Sazuko and her husband share a home with their son, daughter-in-law, and two grandsons.

We took off our shoes and left them in the genkan (entry of the house) and slipped into our slippers. Next, we headed into their traditional Japanese living room. We had to remove our slippers before we entered. The floor was covered with tatami mats. We sat on zabutons (floor cushions) around a kotatsu (a low wood table frame covered by a blanket or futon and has heat beneath it). I was given a special seat because I was the guest. We went around the table and formally introduced ourselves. We told each other our names and talked a little about ourselves. Sazuko’s son, Shuji, used an internet translator on his computer to talk with me. Would you like to speak with someone in this way?

Soon it was time to make dinner and I was invited to help. After staying in hotels for a few weeks, it felt great to be with a family in a real kitchen. I wore an adorable pink flowered apron that actually was not too long on me! (Later that evening Sazuko gave me the apron as a present. I can’t wait to show it to you.) I learned how to make tempura (battered and fried vegetables). We mixed the batter using flower, water, and eggs. Then we used chops sticks to dip eggplant, a special type of radishes, and peppers into the batter and then into the hot oil. Carefully, we fried the vegetables until they were golden brown. The tempura was my favorite part of the feast the Hasegawa family prepared for me!

After dinner we took pictures together. Then, Sazuko and her husband Kenshichirou invited me to go out and sing karaoke. At first I was a little embarrassed because I am not a great singer, but I just tried my best and laughed OFTEN. We sang Christmas carols together. When we returned home we had tea. Over tea we talked about Lincoln School and I shared your writing with them. Then I took my first real Japanese bath. I showered outside of the tub with my soap and then just relaxed in the large tub filled with hot water. It was great! That night I felt like the Princess and the Pea as I slept on a pile of colorful futons, sheets, and blankets in a wonderful traditional tatami room. It was terrific and so much more comfortable than I ever imagined!

After a nice breakfast the next morning we were very busy. First, we visited Sazuko and Kenshichirou's daughter, son-in-law, and other two grandchildren. When her grandson first met me he asked, “Where did she come from?” He wrote out his ABC’s in English and gave them to me. Next, we visited a shrine. Then, we had lunch. After that we went to see the beach. There I saw another shrine, a lighthouse, and the Pacific Ocean. When we got back in the car it was time to take me back to my group. It certainly was a day I will never forget!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

School Visits

Over the past three days I have had one of the most amazing educational experiences of my life! After ten long months of anticipation the day finally arrived for the school visits. On Tuesday we visited Haramachi Junior High School, on Wednesday we visited Haramachi Elementary School, and on Thursday we visited Haramachi High School.

On both Tuesday and Wednesday the entire student body greeted us first thing in the morning with a school wide assembly. The students stood in perfectly straight rows. One of my teacher friends gave a speech each day. Then we took turns introducing ourselves in Japanese. I said, “New Jersey kara kamashita Rebecca Vecchione desu. Watashi was sho-gakko no tokushu kyoiku no kyoshi desu.” I said, “I am Rebecca Vecchione from New Jersey. I am an elementary school resource room teacher.” A student even gave a speech in English to our group. We had a similar experience at the elementary school on Wednesday. Their brass band performed during their welcoming assembly. They were AMAZING! They sounded like they should be playing in a high school! We were so impressed! The students, teachers, and administrators were so warm and welcoming to us at all of the schools we visited!

When we entered each of the school buildings we had to remove our outside (regular) shoes and leave them in a special area in the entry of the building called the gokan. We wore our slippers, but the students in each school had special inside shoes or sneakers that they wore. In fact, all of the students were also required to wear school uniforms to public school. Do you think that it is a good idea to have students wear uniforms to schools? Explain.

Each day we spent most of our time observing (watching) any of the classes that interested us. While I enjoyed all three days of our observations, visiting the elementary school was certainly my favorite. I spent time in every single grade level and a special education classroom. I was able to watch math, Japanese, science, social studies, art, computers, home economics, health, calligraphy, music, physical education, and special projects. In the calligraphy classroom, the teacher set up an extra desk and I was even able to try the lesson myself!

At lunch time at the elementary school and junior high school we joined the students in the classroom. In Japan students eat lunch in their classroom with their teachers. High school students bring lunch from home, but elementary and junior high school students do not bring lunch to school. Everyone eats the school lunch and the students help to serve and clean up lunch. We had chicken, rice, vegetables, and milk. I tried to eat with my chopsticks, but my sensei (teacher) called for a fork! The children laughed. They presented me with a paper flower necklace and gave a short speech. They asked me to do the same. We had a great time together, even if we did not always understand each other!

When the students finished eating they cleaned up their lunch trays and plates. Then they went out into the hallways to brush their teeth. Next, at both the elementary school and junior high school it literarily was “clean up” time. The students with the help of their teacher were responsible for taking care of their school. The cleaned their school top to bottom! They swept the floor, cleaned the floor with rags, cleaned the windows and blackboards, and even cleaned the bathrooms! During the whole time, classical music played throughout the classrooms and hallways and the students seemed to be cheerful. Should we think about trying this idea at Lincoln School? Why do you agree or disagree?

At the end of the school day at the high school, some of the students stayed after school for club activities. On the day we were visiting we were able to watch the art club, jujitsu club, and Japanese archery club. The students really seemed to like these activities.

I so enjoyed visiting the schools and I hope that someday I will be able to make the same experience possible for another teacher!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fukushima City and Minamisoma

On Sunday I packed my bag and left my lovely room at the Hotel New Otani in Tokyo. It was finally time to head for our host cities! As you know, I was selected to go to the prefecture (state) of Fukushima. (If you want to learn more about Fukushima or any of the other cities I have visited be sure to visit my Japan Page and click on the Destinations button.)

There are 15 other teachers and administrators (principals and superintendents) in my group. We are so lucky to have a wonderful group leader named Megumi and an excellent translator named Mariko. They make it possible for us to communicate (speak) with people who only speak Japanese since we only speak English. They are teaching us so much about Japan and the Japanese culture. We are so thankful to have them guiding us along on this journey.

Our first stop was Fukushima City, the third largest city in the prefecture. In order to get to Fukushima, which is north of Tokyo, we traveled by bullet train. The train received this nickname because it speeds so quickly it looks like a bullet flying through the air! I enjoyed looking out the windows and seeing the homes, businesses, land, and cars. I learned so much about Japan during our train ride.

When we arrived in Fukushima City we checked into the hotel and then headed straight to the local art museum. I was surprised to see a Claude Monet painting on display. Also, there was a terrific special exhibition of Japanese textiles. They were absolutely beautiful!

The next morning we headed to Fukushima University. We had a chance to speak with the college professors and administrators. We learned about how their college teaches students to become teachers in Japan. First year college students who want to become teachers plan and run a special summer camp for Japanese students. Do you think that this sounds like a good idea? Please tell me your opinion.

Then, we jumped back on the bus and drove an hour and a half through the countryside to Minamisoma. We were greeted at the mayor’s office. We also met with the superintendent and the board of education. Press was present and took our pictures. We were featured in two local papers the next day! I have a copy that I will bring home and share with you.

I am SO EXCITED. Tomorrow I begin visiting schools. It is the moment I have been waiting for since I learned I was to be a part of the JFMF program! I can not wait to share with you what I observe and learn!

Monday, October 20, 2008


The JFMF program has a very structured schedule and Saturday was my only day off. Four of my new teacher friends and I decided to make the most of it. While the thought of sleeping in was very tempting because we are all so jet lagged (tired,) the desire to explore another part of Japan won out. We did not want to waste too much time traveling back and forth from our hotel to another area of Japan so after much thought we decided to visit Kamakura.

Kamakura (鎌倉市) is a city on the coast of the Pacific Ocean in the prefecture of Kanagawa. It is only about one hour south of Tokyo. Its beaches, temples, shrines, and proximity (closeness) to Tokyo makes it a popular tourist destination and the perfect place for a few American teachers to get a small taste of what Japan has to offer.

Hasedera Temple is one of the temples in this city. It is most famous for its statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. It is a wooden statue that shows Kannon with eleven heads. Each head represents one characteristic of the goddess. At 9.18 meters tall (30 feet), it is the largest wooden sculpture in Japan. It was made in the 8th century from a single piece of camphor wood.

My pictures show the temple garden and a pond, with a bamboo water fountain and stone lanterns. The Bentendo, a small hall near the pond, contains a figure of Benten or Benzaiten, a goddess of feminine beauty and wealth. Next to the Bentendo is a small cave, Bentenkusu, which contains candle-lit sculptures of Benten and other minor gods.

From the terrace next to the temple’s main building visitors can get a great view of the city of Kamakua and the Pacific Ocean.

We also had a chance to see the Great Buddha of Kamakura (大仏,). It is a bronze statue of Amida Buddha. It is located on the grounds of the Kotokuin Temple. At 13.35 meters or about 44 feet, it is the second largest Buddha statue in Japan. It weighs 93 tons. He is HUMONGOUS!

Kamakura was an absolutely beautiful region. The air was clean and crisp. I was so inspired by the surrounding I took about 250 pictures! I am so glad that we decided to spend our only day off in such a wonderful place!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Math in Japan

Today I attended a very interesting workshop on math education in Japan. It was fascinating to see how the US and Japan are both alike and different. In the US each state decides what students will learn in schools and writes their own math curriculum. In Japan the entire country uses the same math curriculum. This means that every student in the same grade learns the same topics no matter which prefecture (state) they live in.

All textbooks, including math textbooks, must be approved by the government before they can be used in school. The Board of Education has several approved choices to pick from. Japanese math textbooks are quite different from our math textbooks. I am told that they usually do not have connections to science, social studies, or literature. They are VERY thin. Some Japanese educators wonder if American or British style textbooks, which tend to be much larger, would be better for Japanese students. I have purchased some examples of Japanese math textbooks (that have been translated into English) to bring home and share with you.

Furthermore, I was surprised to learn that students at the elementary level have math class for only three periods a week, which the country plans to increase after 2011. Did you think that Lincoln School students would spend more time in math class than students in Japan?

Another interesting topic we discussed was the importance of enjoying math. Before the year 2004, the word “enjoyment” was not used when talking about math in Japanese curriculum (teaching). Now it is becoming a part of their math language. Do you think that it is important for students to enjoy math? How can your teachers help you to enjoy math?


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fish Market

Konnichi wa Lincoln School family! At 4:15 this morning I crawled out of my very comfortable bed at the Hotel New Otani, quickly dressed, and joined a group of some of my new teacher friends for an EARLY morning Tokyo adventure before the start of our scheduled activities. Four teachers piled into a taxi cab and headed for the fish market. Our driver only spoke Japanese so I was glad that I had learned the Japanese word for fish, sakana.

When we arrived we first explored the VERY busy market. The market is not designed for tourists (visitors). You enter at your own risk and you need to be very careful. It was important to be aware of your surrounding. As my pictures show, carts were speeding by while fish were being sliced with sharp knives. The workers do not look out for you. As visitors, we knew that we were in the way of them doing their jobs and we tried to be as careful as possible so that they could work!

Finally, we entered the area of the tuna actions. Hundreds of large frozen tuna were lined up waiting to be auctioned off. The bidders (the people interested in buying the tuna) walked around and examined (looked at) the tuna. They used a special hooked tool to look inside the meat. Sometimes they would slice off a piece of the fish as well so that they could see the inside of the tuna. When the action began it was very loud and difficult for us to follow because it was all in Japanese. We were told by another person at the market that one large tuna can sell for as much as $100,000! When I learned this I understood why the bidders were looking so carefully at the fish. The fish market was definitely an experience I will not forget.

When I returned to The Hotel New Otani I was quite hungry so I headed straight for breakfast on the 40th floor, which is the top floor of the hotel and has a panoramic view of Tokyo. When I arrived I received my second treat of the day. It was an unusally clear day and the visibility (not a lot of smog/pollution) was great. I could see Mount Fuji! Wow!