Book Review: Totto-chan - A book for every educator

Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window
Author: Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, Translator: Dorothy Britton. Publisher: Kodansha International, 1996.
ISBN: 4-7700-2067-8

This book was given me as a gift by my sister-in-law, an educator and avid reader. It is the autobiography of a famous actress and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. The book concentrates on a short period of time when the author attended Tomoe primary school in Tokyo. In fact, the book is more a description of the school founder's practice than it is a life story.

Expelled from first grade!
The book starts by telling of Totto-chan's expelling from her previous school, when she was only in grade one. You see, "the little girl at the window" would wait all morning for street bands to walk by the school and call them over to play their music. This was seen as highly disruptive behaviour and, exasperated, her teacher decided the girl did not become at the school. Eventually, her mother found a school that would take her: Tomoe Gakuen.

Tomoe was founded by an educational reformer called Sosaku Kobayachi, referred to throughout the book as "the headmaster". It was a small school of 50 students in total. Classrooms were disused train cars. In the assembly hall, the students shared a daily lunch consisting of "something from the ocean and something from the hills." Mr Kobayachi believed in experiential learning. He even asked the parents to send their kids to school in their worst clothes.

Lessons at Tomoe
Tomoe was a school with a lot of freedom. The students were trusted to climb trees, play freely or stay in class to finish a science experiment during recess. Here's a description of the classes at Tomoe:
At the beginning of the first period, the teacher made a list of all the problems and questions in the subjects to be studied that day. Then she would say, "Now, start with any of these you like."
This method of teaching enabled the teachers to observe - as the children progressed to higher grades- what they were interested in as well as their way of thinking and character. It was an ideal way for teachers to really get to know their pupils. (p. 29)

Adventures on the school grounds
Totto-chan's adventures at Tomoe were many. One time, she decided to invite Yasuaki-chan to her tree. You see, every student had a tree of his/her own but Yasuaki had had polio and couldn't climb. Totto-chan decided that he deserved to see the world from the top of a tree. She used some ingenuity and found strength she never knew she possessed. Eventually, Yasuaki was able to stand in her tree and look at the surrounding area.
Perhaps the most memorable experience she had was when she dropped her purse down the toilet! Undaunted, she started emptying the cesspool with a wooden ladle. What was the headmaster's reaction when he saw her? He asked what she was doing and added: "You'll put it all back when you've finished, won't you?"

Things to fear
So what did this headmaster, who permitted the children to experiment, fail and learn, teach them to fear?
Having eyes, but not seeing beauty; having ears, but not hearing music; having minds, but not perceiving truth; having hearts that are never moved and therefore never set on fire. These are the things to fear, said the headmaster. (p.81)

War reached Japan and Tomoe eventually burned down. As he watched his creation go up in flame, the headmaster said to his son, after whom the school had been named, "What kind of school shall we build next?"

This book is poignant: It is charming and readable by a child but it is designed to make a point. As one review on the back jacket says, "It is a quiet indictment of sterile education." An epilogue relates what became of the Tomoe students that featured in the book. Until the writing of the book, the Tomoe alumni assembled to reminisce every year on November 3rd, the day on which Tomoe used to hold its Sports Day.


MahaCopia said…
It's a very heart-warming and touching book.
Mr. Kobayashi's education system was great. It touched some important and crucial aspects in children that formal education nowadays neglects/overlooks.
In my opinion, the other great persons who made Totto-chan's wonderful childhood possible were her parents, especially her mother. She always protected Totto-chan from bad influences, although some people there thought it was the norm. She also tried to provide what was best for her daughter, not what was best for herself.

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