Noilly Prattle: April 2013

Friday, April 26, 2013

Call Me Mr. B. – Four


"My Logo": sample for a 6th Grade project
      Greetings (挨拶 – aisatsu) are important in any language, but in Japan they are de rigeur and highly formalized if not ritualized. Our students would come to the Art Room and line up formally (if not always quietly) and we would exchange greetings in a kind of admittedly not entirely natural and more than a little singsong English, but English nonetheless. Until the new students got used to the correct English pronunciation of my French surname [which they never did] I encouraged them to “call me Mr. B.” and the name stuck. In English I was Mr. B, in Japanese I was ブーシェ先生 (Boucher Teacher) The greeting, pretty much unvarying, would go:

       Me: Good Morning boys and girls.
       Ss: Good Morning Mr. B.
       Me: How are you today?
       Ss: I'm fine, thank you, and you?
       Me: I'm fine; OK; good; so-so.--depending on my mood.
       Ss: Can we come in?
       Me: Yes. OK. Etc.

        I eventually could get some of them to vary the “I'm fine.” with something more real like: “I'm tired.” or “I'm hungry.”, etc.


       No learning can take place unless you can keep a class of thirty or more kids under control. Any teacher who survives knows this and has developed techniques to manage a classroom full of diverse personalities. Discipline is difficult enough for a teacher who knows the language and customs of the country. But here I was, a foreign teacher with limited Japanese language ability and accustomed to a structured hierarchy of disciplinary procedures from the classroom teacher to the principal of the school. I was stunned to discover that there were no similar disciplinary procedures like detention, suspension and even expulsion of misbehaving students as I had been accustomed to as a teacher in an American public school. Furthermore, as I was teaching in a for-profit private school, we were discouraged from letting the parents of problem kids know about it. In a nutshell, I had to deal with it pretty much on my own. Enter Behavior Modification.

partial view of semi-circular table arrangement
        B.M. is a system of classroom control techniques that I had learned when I was studying for a Masters in Special Needs for Emotionally Disturbed Children. I wouldn't say that my students were emotionally disturbed (although I've had my doubts about a few over the years), but a system of rewards and consequences (positive and negative reinforcement) will work with average children just as well. Building on techniques I had used in my special needs class in Kingston I rearranged the furniture in the Art Room to improve visual and physical contact. The typical Japanese classroom is rigidly laid out with desks neatly arranged in straight rows reinforcing the beloved Japanese preference for conformity and military-like precision. I wanted an environment that would discourage conformity and promote a freer feeling to spur creativity but, at the same time, not inspiring a riotous, anything goes atmosphere. To this end I rearranged the tables in a roughly semi-circular pattern around two tables that could be arranged in an L-shape that I could use for demonstration and instructions. It was, at the same time, harder for the kids to hide from my roving eye, see better what I was doing and sense that I wasn't some remote figure lecturing from the blackboard but actively involved in exploring and working together to create something that wasn't there before.

To be continued...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Blood Sport

    Whatever happened to to the notion of impartial justice?

       Seems as though the “suspects” in the Boston Marathon bombing have been accused, tried and (in the case of one) executed—all as a spectator sport in the mass media. It has been chillingly fascinating to see the reaction of the media spectators clearly on an adrenalin rush, couched in piety, pity, prayer and patriotism. Betraying more about the angry or sorrowful or simply bored character of the spectators than the guilt of the “suspects”, these people were clearly engaging in a blood sport much as if they were at an ice hockey game or soccer match that has gone over the edge.

       The bombing of the marathon was, to be sure, a spectacularly disconcerting (although not particularly surprising) event, as is any act of such violence whether it be a game changer like the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, one of the series of mass killings that seemingly occur on a regular basis or military adventures in foreign countries where the death tolls are quietly swept under the rug. Understandably, there is a great deal of pressure on the authorities to do something to calm the fears and hysteria of the population in the immediate vicinity of the event. The pressure to appear to have things under official control can lead to hasty media interviews to feed the 24-hour media cycle with “news” which tends to end up becoming a loop of fuzzy information feeding on itself and increasing the demand for more action and more spurious information.

       So, we have authorities under pressure, showing grainy pictures and deciding that two of the figures in the clip are “suspicious”, naming them as suspects and go on what can only be called a wild, highly visible Hollywood-flick-style manhunt ending in a spectacular shootout that Sam Peckinpah could have scripted. Yet, the brothers were and still are only suspects, one dead and one in critical condition with Miranda rights waived because of possible terror implications. Should the second suspect die, we will be no closer to understanding the whys and wherefores of the marathon bombing. Yet the spectators were deliriously happy and cheering on the capture of the second suspect—in one case even suggesting waterboarding him—clearly unconcerned whether or not he was really guilty of the crime. Are we witnessing a new kind of participatory interactive blood sport entertainment—movies and video games come live to Main Street in a theater of the macabre?

       Isn't it just possible that a quieter, out of camera range, sober investigation of whatever leads the authorities had might have led to harder evidence, a proper arrest and criminal trial—justice without the spectacle of the media trial and execution we have just witnessed? They used to call this a lynching back in the day.   

Monday, April 15, 2013

Call Me Mr. B. – Three

design using color markers, cut and paste

     Since I couldn't do a lot of explaining in Japanese, and the class was supposed to be an Art/English class, I hit on the idea of relying a lot on visual examples [such as the fantasy design on the left] and simple English and Japanese (where the latter was necessary and possible) to present lessons. Since the visuals had to be done in conjunction with developing a lesson I did a lot more actual ”art” work than I had ever done before. The visuals both stimulated the students and helped them to understand, along with directions and demonstration, what I wanted them to try and express. Naturally, feedback was the most essential ingredient in determining what worked and what didn't and what changes and modifications or downright dropping of an ill-advised lesson were necessary.

       The main consideration, at first, was finding and developing enough material and lessons for grade levels Two through Six. You have to take into consideration the ages, interests and dexterity of the kids. I had developed some projects and lesson ideas with the special needs students in my class in Kingston and I had gathered some ideas and materials that I took with me when I left. These formed the core of my curriculum planning but had to be expanded and diversified to fill the necessity of providing two-hour classes each week for the five grades. Since the school was brand new there was only one class per grade for grades two to six. As the years went by new classes were added to each grade level until the school reached three classes per grade level, significantly overextending my ability to keep up with the classroom and preparation hours per week.

       Naturally, there were many problems and obstacles in the process of organizing a program: finding ideas (the Internet proved to be a great resource), developing material, making a schedule and materials list for the homeroom teachers [sample on right], preparing demonstration models, deciding how much English I could actually use and expect to be understood, working out a self-contained disciplinary regimen, disposition of classroom furniture, keeping grades, etc. In actual practice these things were worked out over time and largely by trial and error since there wasn't any precedent for a class completely under the control of a foreign teacher.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Call Me Mr. B. – Two

I did a few new experimental pictures once I had settled 
into a beautiful studio all my own to work in. 
The Art Room was, for my money, the most beautiful room in the school, 
which was brand new and built at enormous expense at the end of Japan's bubble years.
Both the Art Room and its adjacent "Preparation Room"
(my studio) had real hardwood floors 
and wooden cabinetry and shelves—
and I don't mean plywood or particle board.

Here is a series of pictures I did in the 1990s, 
in the order of completion, 
that were not necessarily done in conjunction with lessons for the students;
they were just for my own interest and expression, 
but led to ideas for simpler applications 
 appropriate for student level interest and manual dexterity. 

This collage is entitled, right in the picture, World 1994.
It is a fairly large work, 110 x 80 cm,, and consists of various kinds of
materials: Japanese washi paper, wrapping paper, some felt tip
outline drawing and advertising flyers. It is an attempt to
contrast the overcrowded modern Japan that I experienced with Japan's
own idealization of its historic feudal past. 

This work is untitled and is 53 x 75 cm.
It is another collage executed using various techniques and materials.
The sky is marbling on wet paper as are the river, road and wall.
The mountains and grassy area behind the wall are Japanese washi paper.
The tree is black construction paper cut with an Exacto type knife.
The road and wall are spattered with a toothbrush.
The figures of the man and child are computer clip art. 

I call this picture Gokei for a small river gorge that I loved
the ride my motorcycle through when my son was around 10-years old and liked to ride pillion.
It is also a collage 80 x 64 cm. using
similar techniques to the other pictures in this series:
marbling on wet paper, computer clip art images,
cutting with Exacto type knife and even a piece of transparent plastic sheet
for the magic carpet effect.
There is also the use of torn marbled paper for the mountains.
On the left is an abstract impression of the gorge in the Autumn
contrasted to the city-like structures on the right. 

On my Yamaha Virago 400 cc. (composition)
c. 1994-5

To be continued...

Friday, April 5, 2013

Call Me Mr. B. – One

Plymouth, MA Harbor and the Mayflower
      It all started in 1992 when I was working as a Special Needs Teacher in Kingston, Massachusetts, my home State. My wife, young son and I were living in Plymouth, a neighboring town, when my wife read about a new school in Japan that sounded like it was interested in setting up a curriculum that integrated Japanese and English, so I wrote to the director and asked him if he was looking for an English teacher with previous experience teaching in Japan.

the school
      The school already had an Australian guy I knew setting up an English program. The director was pushing the international angle in his public relations and hired me as well—to make me the foreign “face” of the school--as it eventually evolved. It soon became apparent, however, that there wasn't enough work for two English teachers and the school didn't really know what to do with me.

      I was in a unique position since, being a licensed teacher in the US, it turned out that the school was able to use my American teacher's license to obtain a Japanese teaching certificate. This put me on a par with Japanese teachers in terms of contract and salary conditions as well as assuming the responsibilities of a Japanese classroom teacher. I was able to take sole responsibility for my classes without having to have a Japanese co-teacher in the room. Not being compatible with co-teaching (too much ego) this was a golden opportunity for me to experiment without being under the watchful eye (and potential interference) of another teacher. But first, I needed the right situation.

in the stained glass studio - c. 1986
      The school suggested various alternatives to English classes to make fuller use of my time. One suggestion, which I felt was right up my alley, was to teach Art and tie it in with English using simple practical English for directions and vocabulary—a kind of low grade “immersion”. I agreed to set up and teach Art classes for Grades 2 though 6 and be phased out of teaching conversational English classes in two years and devote all my time to the Art/English class after that.

free form lamp - hydrangea with butterfly
      A little back- ground might help in making sense of why I felt comfort- able with doing an Art program. First of all, I've liked to draw since I was a child and have been drawn to various types of visual expression over the years: studied mechanical drawing in high school; took fine arts classes in college and art institutes; got interested in photography; studied Japanese Ikebana [生花]; did stained glass with a Japanese artisan [先生 sensei]. I felt that teaching an Art class might also stimulate me into expanding and exploring new dimensions in my own visual expression as well as developing lessons and techniques for turning kids on to their own potential creativity. As an extra added bonus, kids make a terrific captive audience for showing your work. For that matter, so does your own blog.

     (Who needs an art gallery?)

Ikebana for Xmas decoration

To be continued...