The lesson Japan taught my Singapore students
by Shahida Ariff |March 11, 2016 -- Updated 11:14

June 6 2015 Fukushima

Republic Polytechnic lecturers Shahida Ariff (top row, left) and Fashela Jailanee (second row, left), together with nine students and Singapore Red Cross’ Head of International Services Charis Chan (front row, right), pose after a tree-planting ceremony in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. (Photo: Singapore Red Cross)

One evening in June last year, I was on a bus travelling along the coast of Japan’s Tohoku region when I saw the newsflash on my phone about the Sabah quake.

For the next few days, I spent every bus ride reading about the tragedy – from the rising death toll to the online chatter from Singaporeans questioning the purpose of overseas school expeditions. Afterwards, I would turn around and look at the faces of the students in my and my colleague’s charge. They would be looking out the bus window at the beautiful scenery, going through their interview notes or scanning through their footage. I knew their parents were worried about them being in a quake-prone country. But I also knew that my students were earning the experience of a lifetime.

For 10 days that June, my colleague Fashela and I took nine students to cities in northeastern Japan that were devastated by the 2011 quake and tsunami. The trip was commissioned by the Singapore Red Cross (SRC), which had tasked us to take photos and videos of Singapore’s contributions to the rebuilding efforts ahead of the disaster’s fifth anniversary today.

The assignment was gruelling. In 10 days, we traversed seven cities in three prefectures. Every day was a flurry of activity – taking photos, shooting footage, conducting interviews. We slept late and rose early. Every night after a day’s shoot, and a quick dinner, there was a compulsory debrief and rundown. It was a far cry from school, yet it was the best lesson my students could possibly learn.

My students, mostly in their teens, met city mayors, security officials and the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. They spoke to elderly Japanese whose homes were destroyed, listened to businessmen whose savings were wiped out and chased after precocious pre-schoolers whose mothers still had nightmares of the disaster. They came away from interviews with tears in their eyes but remained professional and poised as good communications students are trained to be.

Ask good questions, we always say to the kids in class. Listen to your newsmaker and be sensitive when asking difficult questions. In Japan, these were no longer instructions out of a lesson plan. A person who had gone through real tragedy was at the end of those questions. To complicate matters, this person did not even speak the same language. My students overcame that hurdle by picking up simple Japanese, smiling constantly, and becoming buddies with our translators.

It was as if they had blossomed into adults, suddenly wiser and world-weary. They saw first-hand the devastating effects of Mother Nature. They understood what it was like to rebuild after losing everything you hold dear in life. They would not have known all this had they remained in the air-conditioned comfort of their classrooms and the constant lure of their life on social media.

An opportunity like this, however, doesn’t come often. The Ministry of Education is thinking of ways to make the education our children receive more robust, with a greater emphasis on values, skills and the love for learning and discovery.

It is a complex task, to say the least. As an educator, this project illustrates to me why this shift is important but it isn’t just the policy makers who have their work cut out for them: education touches parents, the community and educators. My students’ parents put aside their worries and took a leap of faith with us. The community, in the form of our industry partner, the Singapore Red Cross, gave us the resources and the opportunity. My colleague and I stretched the team’s potential and got them to see the value of hard work and what thinking on their feet looks like. That they got to practice their technical skills in a real-life setting was just a considerable bonus.

Now that their photos are displayed and the documentary screened at a roving exhibition at various malls , it is the culmination of a long and arduous journey. My students’ parents will be attending this exhibition, and my colleagues and I will join them in feeling immensely proud of their children’s achievement.

The photo exhibition, The Strength of the Human Spirit, is now on at VivoCity until March 13, Westgate from March 15-27 and The Star Vista from April 1-3.

Watch the documentary here: The Strength of the Human Spirit

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