Gokusen: The Japanese Morality Tale

Gokusen was a Japanese manga series(2000-2007) by Kozueko Morimoto that was later converted to a three season TV program(2002, 2004, 2008.)   Gokusen(“gangster teacher”) concerns the adventures of orphan, Kumiko Yamaguchi, who has been brought up by her gangster grandfather in the Oedo Clan.  She is in line to take over as the fourth head of the Clan, but chooses instead a life teaching estranged, would-be delinquent boys in all-male private high schools as a homeroom teacher.  Because of Kumiko’s training in the Oedo Clan, she has become an expert in all forms of martial arts and can defeat most opponents easily, even groups of opponents.  The role of Kumiko in the TV series was played by former Japanese model, Yukie Nakama.  Throughout the series, other Japanese models appear as well, usually as school colleagues.

3D at each school contains the worst students, future delinquents, kids with no apparent future, troublemakers in general.(The one exception is Sawada, Shirokin High School’s top student, who gives a stirring and insightful valedictory speech at graduation.)  Thus, Kumiko or Yankumi(her students name for her) has her hands full right from the start.  Her specialty is mathematics and the first day we see her writing equations on the blackboard that require complex numbers as solutions.  However, her mathematics skills are never appreciated by her students.  And this is important.  Formal education with a small e:  mathematics, languages, history, science, music, art, physical education, etc. is minimized throughout the series.  Indeed, excellent students are often shown to be arrogant, domineering, and even engaging in criminal activity just for sport.  The emphasis here will be on universal moral Education(education with a capital E) and that is where Kumiko demonstrates her strength.  The main reason for the particular emphasis is that formal education does not apply to everyone;  not everybody is skillful in the above-mentioned disciplines.  However, universal moral Education is just that:  It is universal, so it applies to everyone.  That is the point Yankumi will try to make with her troubled students.

Kumiko’s first step is to observe her students carefully to find out which one of them is the leader.  Then, she tries to gain that student’s confidence and support.  This is often a difficult task, but essential,  because that student will convey her principles to the group.  Her goal is to show that school is more than formal education, but that there are experiences that school provides that impact all their lives.  Above all, there are friendships that are made in school which will last a lifetime.  This principle is repeated emphatically whenever any student separates himself from his schoolmates.  Friendship means you are never alone and Yankumi emphasizes that there is nothing she wouldn’t do to save her precious students.  Her students begin to see through her actions that she means what she says and often fights off opponents to help them and is unwavering in her support of them at school.  She teaches her students about other experiences that can be shared by them regardless of society’s condescension.  Fighting is meaningless, she says, unless it is to defend another person or is carried out to achieve a noble goal.  When Kumai, the worst student in his class, fights to protect a girl, he is rewarded by gaining a girlfriend and eventual wife.  Later, other students from Akadou Academy share Kumai’s profound feelings for the awesome birth of his daughter.  Students learn to appreciate the great sacrifices their parents have made and not to take their parents for granted.  The parents, though, are sometimes overindulgent, or sometimes overly strict and unwilling to listen to their children.  In each case, the student learns to appreciate a moral lesson from life.  And, Kumiko reminds her students that they have a choice to make something of their lives and that there are beautiful human experiences which can be shared by all.

Sukhomlinsky And His Children

The famous Ukrainian educator, Vasilii Sukhomlinsky, had a special relationship with the children with whom he worked.  He had the ability to immerse himself into the child’s awe-struck world of wonder and discovery.  Sukhomlinsky knew how to instruct without being didactic.  He was ever sensitive to a child’s desire to learn and ask questions.

In China, virtually all of his works have been translated and he is considered one of the greatest of the world’s educators.  In the West, alas, such is not the case.  However, through the efforts of Australian Sukhomlinsky scholar, Alan Cockerill, Sukhomlinsky’s name is gaining prominence.  Alan has established a site and a newsletter to promote Sukhomlinsky’s multi-faceted pedagogy.  He has translated several of Sukhomlinsky’s works and has been a tireless supporter of the Ukrainian educator’s work.  Most importantly, he has put together a video showing Sukomlinsky interacting with his children.  The video is in Russian with English subtitles.  To watch this brief video, please go to my facebook page at:  facebook.com/robertmkweiss.

Something To Think About

Below are two quotes from two mathematicians.  Robert Brooks is speaking about mathematics, but could his statement refer to something else?  Charles Kalme mentions education and not mathematics, but is there a connection between the two quotes?  What do these two quotes suggest in our everyday lives?

“…it dawned on me that all the numbers we had been given to add up until that time had been kind of “cooked up”, so you didn’t have to carry…;  and I said to myself,  “I wonder what else they’re holding back?”–Robert Brooks, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, University of Southern California

“Education courses are where you learn not to rock the boat.”–Charles Kalme, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, University of Southern California

“Gee, I Never Dealt With That Question Before”: Philosophy For Children

Some years ago, Matthew Lipman, a professor at Columbia University, created the Philosophy for Children program.  The basic tenet was that children were born natural philosophers and that many of their queries had philosophical import.   On the basis of that tenet, he created a curriculum dedicated to utilizing and developing children’s philosophical skills.  His first book, Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery, proved enormously successful with 5th graders in a New York City school.  His project was quite ambitious, because philosophy encompasses such areas as:  ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, logic, foundations of mathematical and scientific principles, politics and the law.

In 1973, Professor Lipman established the Institute for the Advancement for the Philosophy of Children at Montclair State College in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.  Using money from grants, he developed philosophical readings and exercises from K-12.  He also provided a comprehensive teacher’s manual with plans for discussions and future projects.

Dale Cannon, a professor of philosophy at Western Oregon State College, describes the five basic elements in the Philosophy for Children program.  “First, a thought-provoking story and subsequent comments.  Typically, in Philosophy for Children, the students read the story aloud, even though they may have read it before.  Second, student interest is what sets the agenda for discussion.  Children are interested in talking in response to what they have read.  Third, a community of inquiry is a fundamental concept for Matthew Lipman and the program itself.  A group of children gradually develop a sense of cooperation in trying to clarify and comprehend what they are working on.  They are pondering about whether the argument makes good sense and are holding each other responsible as well.  Fourth, a trained adult facilitator is crucial.  The facilitator needs to be able to draw out the ideas of children without saying, ‘ I want you to pay attention to these ideas, these answers and not those.’  A trained facilitator might say, ‘Those are interesting thoughts you are coming up with, and I wonder where they might lead.’  Fifth, a set of discussion plans and exercises offer guidance when the opportunity for philosophical dialogue presents itself.  The teacher or adult may wonder,’Gee, I never dealt with that question before.  How should I respond to that.’  The discussion plans and exercises represent people who have worked with the program before and offer helpful suggestions to teachers or adults.”

Over the years, the Philosophy for Children program has made its way into many schools as a means of encouraging thinking and promoting discussion.  However, the program does not limit itself to reasoning only.  It also seeks to encourage creativity and personal and interpersonal growth.  Dale Cannon explains in further detail.  “Creative writing is one method of developing creativity.  And there are questions of a philosophical nature that relate to personal/interpersonal growth.  Some examples:  ‘What am I?  How am I like other persons?  How am I different from other persons?  What is my relationship to my own body?  What is my mind?  What is my mind like?  What is imagination?  What is the relationship between imagination and thinking or mind or thought or dreams?’  All of these are philosophical questions that are returned to again and again throughout the Philosophy for Children program.”  Matthew Lipman was a true pioneer in legitimizing a relationship between philosophical concepts and children.

“How Can Mothers Give Birth To Such Monsters?

It was late at night.  Most of the patients were sleeping, but one was not.  He was tossing and turning, hovering between sanity and insanity.  The pain from the shrapnel wound he had received fighting for the Ukrainian resistance had not subsided, but that was not what was troubling him.  Only a few hours ago, he had learned of the death of his new wife and child.  His wife had been the prettiest girl in the village and they had looked forward to a long life together.  She, too, had been a fighter for Ukrainian independence, but had been captured by the Germans.  In a narrow prison with grimy walls, she had been tortured, and finally hanged, but not before she saw her baby’s skull shattered at the hands of the Nazis.  One thought tormented Vasya:  “How can mothers give birth to such monsters?”   He continued to moan from pain and despair.  Where was his future happiness now?  He thought back to his first date, and the sparkle in his bride’s eyes.  The Ukrainian steppe, which once seemed a boundless reach of possibilities, was now shrouded in gloom and uncertainty.  The more he thought, the angrier he got, and gripped the bedsheets, clenching his teeth.  Yet those actions assuaged some of his anger and he thought of his dead child and the many helpless children that are subjected to man’s inhumanity.  A new look shone in his eyes.  This was a confident look, a look of determination.  Vasya had made a decision:  “I will give my heart to children.”

Suddenly, his mind spun out a series of ideas.  He thought of his mentors:  Anton Makarenko and Janusz Korczak.  Makarenko had transformed would-be delinquents into future lawyers, doctors, architects, builders, teachers.  He had written his Pedagogical Poem in three parts after Dante, showing the progression from student hell to student heaven.  However, to achieve his aims, he had to make use of corporal punishment, and sheer intimidation.  Vasya would have none of that.  He would build the pride and confidence of his pupils, but he would do so from trust and love, not from coercion.  Korczak had been a hero to Vasya.  He had marched with his students to the gas chambers at Treblinka,  accompanying them as their teacher and friend to the very end.  The “Old Doctor”  had placed great emphasis on the health of his students.  This was a concept Vasya could embrace, because he believed in beautiful, healthy children.  He could not know that on the other side of the globe, in the despised imperialist U.S., another writer, the children’s writer, L. Frank Baum, had said the same thing many years before:  ” In all this world there is nothing so beautiful as a happy child.”  Vasya would see to it that the children had ample time for exercise and he would expose them to the elements to strengthen their bodies.

The mind that had been immersed in gloomy thoughts, now spun out more and more positive, expansive thoughts.  Vasya turned once again to his Ukrainian homeland with fruit trees, winding meadows and the ripening fields of grain.  Yes, he wanted children to experience nature in all its grandeur.  He wanted children to experience the awe and mystery of their natural surroundings.  And the thought came to him:  “I will build a school of joy.  I want students to feel beauty in all its manifestations.  Nature will be a wellspring for reading, writing and counting.  Already, he could see parts of future compositions floating about, lighting up the dreary hospital room:  “The Little Sun has arisen.  The little birds have wakened.  A lark ascends into the sky.  The sunflower has also awakened.”  And I will teach the children fairy tales, and we will listen to the music of the streams…

Vasya had exhausted himself with his thoughts and he fell asleep.  However, he never lost his concentrated look and his determination.  From dawn until the evening he would work with students, teachers, parents, and other staff, to create his special school in Pavlysh.  Despite attacks of angina and weakness, he would persevere, and fight for the dignity of children to the end.  When the doctors opened him up at the last, they could not believe he had lived as long as he had, so damaged was his body.  But Vasya had triumphed to become Vasilii Sukhomlinsky, one of the greatest educators of the twentieth century.

A proud Vasilij Sukhomlinskij

A proud Vasilii Sukhomlinsky

A Native American Voice: George Fence Speaks, Part 1.

Several years ago, I  had the opportunity of talking with Native American activist George Fence.  George was a Cherokee who had come to Southern Oregon where he was adopted by the Takelma Tribe.  Education was the topic and George was eager to express his views as a Native American.

GF:  The connotations of education are broad, but in today’s world it means several things.  There is a kind of duality of learning that still occurs amongst many Native American people.  Historically, there are the oral traditions, the histories, the legends and the identification with sites.  Scenic overlooks, rivers and prominent landscape features were elements of this traditional education.  When Indian education was altered through the assimilation policies, education for Indians took on a dual perspective.  When the Indian students had achieved or essentially matriculated out of the institutions and returned to their tribe, they were still held to an older standard.  In many cases, the elders within the tribe saw that rather than increasing the students knowledge, they had somehow diminished it. Their native language was imperfect.  Their skills in the hunt or the chase or even identifying plants and animals, had been completely neglected.  So, the elders saw that in many respects the Indian students were no longer of use to their tribes.  So, they made certain recommendations and suggested that the European descendants, who sometimes were the people teaching at these colleges, send their children to live among the Indians and that they would provide them with an education.  Perhaps, they believed that an amalgamation could occur between the children of the Europeans and the children of the Indians if both were educated in each other’s camps.  I guess, having said that story, there was a time when native people thought thought the kinds of education the children were learning was pushing out the knowledge they thought to be the most important.  And that it was being replaced by an artificial view of the world that didn’t apply, at least, within their own paradigm.  Then there was a point in time when there were more products of the western education system among the Indians than those that carried on the traditional ways.  This happened after about three hundred years of war, coupled with the discriminate policy of isolating and separating the leaders from the followers, amongst the native communities.  Some of the policies were well-meaning.  The Indian Reorganization Act is one such policy that occurred in the thirties, right after the onset of the Roosevelt years.  The result was a real shift in modeling, and developing a tribal hierarchy that essentially mirrored the ruling class.  It transferred the authority from the old men and women of the tribe to a more, as seen from the outside, progressive or liberal form of leadership.  Today, of course, we would have to say that what survives of traditional culture has been fractionalized.  There are fewer and fewer carriers of the culture that have the tools or possess the knowledge and accompanying wisdom to transfer this information.  The stability within the social group has been altered to a large degree, whereas in times past, the elders and others could identify young people within the community who excelled at certain skills and who could be trained from early childhood.  Today, without the backdrop or the patterning of these wisdom keepers, it is difficult for many young native people to know which of these multitude of talents they particularly possess. I would say that there is a tremendous amount of traditional education still available for native people, but that it is one of the most difficult things to access.

The Circles Of Sukhomlinsky By Nata Krylova, Part 2.

Sukhomlinsky’s ideas are from the Second Circle:  1.  The main educator’s skill is the ability to feel the inner world of kids.  The main task for the educator is to teach a child to feel another’s heart;  2.  Learning is part of a child’s spiritual life.  3.  School is the heart of four domains:  the Motherland, the humane, the book, and the native word.  4.  The educator and the child are connected by heartfelt threads.  Sukhomlinsky uses the following concepts as key-words:  spiritual community, heart, deep love, many-sided emotional attitudes, attachment to the child.  That is the OTHER LINE of concepts, different than that used by scholars, who consider research problems only on the first level!

The Third Circle:  Teachers’/Kids’ Community.  In the last years of his life and after his death, Sukhomlinsky enters into the Third Circle;  the spreading of his ideas and growing popularity.  The lines of like-minded educators grow.  We can talk now about the time he lives in as a Historical Circle, in the same way we talk about “Pushkin and his Circle/Surrounding,” or “Shakespeare and his Circle/Surrounding.”

The seeds were sown.  Many teachers followed Sukhomlinsky’s lead.  There was a time for Pre-reformation.  The school reforms and the education in the middle of the 80s had begun.  The new conception of “Educators for Collaboration” was published, summarizing all that had been done in teachers’ Humane Community after Sukhomlinsky’s death.  That community has maintained a connection with the kids’ community in their schools.

The Fourth Circle:  Common World Space.  It is possible that there are the same or similar circles for the development of  educational ideas in various countries.  At the intersection of the 20th and 21st centuries, we have a real opportunity to bring together humanist educational ideas and values of different cultures, including Sukhomlinsky’s ideas.  It doesn’t mean that those ideas will become the same.  It means that educators can enter into the common spiritual space for the upbringing of kids in the Second and Third Circles and there is more which each teacher can give his/her heart to children.(I Give my Heart to Children was the title of one of Sukhomlinsky’s last works.)

Vasilij Sukhomlinskij explores a field with his student.

Vasilii Sukhomlinsky explores a field with his student.