Handing back papers

Japanese students can be expressive when they want to be.

Unlike when I call on a student for an answer and they not only give me a stone faced expression, but give me the cold shoulder, when I return papers they somehow remember how to be an expressive human being again.

They seem to go beyond the “normal” range of expression and explore the exaggerated edges of anime where falling on the floor is an appropriate way to express your dis/satisfaction.

Here is how it usually goes in the classes I hand back papers:

Call students up one by one to return their papers. Most of them immediately fold their papers until they get back to their desks so they can reveal their score in privacy. Both good scores and bad scores are often kept to themselves.

Teachers often give back a copy of the correct answers with the returned tests. Students rush to their desks and very seriously (and usually quietly) check to see if the teacher made any mistake in the hope that their score will be higher. You look out into the classroom and every student is huddled over their sheets, counting and checking until they are satisfied that the score they received is true.

Once that is done, the noise begins. Friends will proudly or meekly share their scores, going through point by point. You see expressions of joy and pride flash across the classroom. Sometimes you see relief, sometimes shame.

The ones with low scores usually handle the situation in one of two ways: the common way is to sit quietly with their paper already tucked away into their desk. Sometimes they’ll pull out a different subject to work on while everyone else is chattering away. They will bring no attention to themselves, and are only conspicuous by their lack of frenzied activity.

The other low scores are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They are often the loudest and over the top in their behavior. They wear their low score proudly and make it into a comic affair. Maybe they do it to cheer others up or maybe to make themselves feel better by pretending it doesn’t matter. Either way, these are the kids lying on the floor causing a comic commotion.

Taking showy pride in your good score isn’t done as often here. Whereas in the US we would proudly brag about our high score, Japanese students really only do that among their friends. Contribute this to individualism vs group culture or the Japanese way of never revealing your true feelings, but it is a notable difference in the classroom.

I actually love handing back papers, especially essays that I have personally graded. The students rush back to their desks, take a deep breath, and quickly check their score. I typically grade on the more forgiving side, yielding higher scores. If I could bottle up the expressions of pride and accomplishment in this uncharacteristic show of expression, I would be a happy woman. Imagine leaking some of those high feelings to the students after a particularly rough exam. Let them remember that they can and do accomplish so much.


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