Finding Lessons for Public Schools in Japanese Anime
When the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered movie theaters, the Japanese film industry pivoted. Here are some lessons schools can use from that experience.
By Matthew Woods
In the past year, school systems took dramatic measures to maintain students’ continuity of learning. Transitions to digital learning that would have taken months or years happened in weeks. New and improved WiFi networks were created, procedures for feeding remote learners were established, and resources for improving the social-emotional support offered to students was amplified. All things considered, I believe America’s public schools did a tremendous job of keeping students learning through the pandemic.
However, one of the biggest concerns that continues to face school districts across the country is the lack of student participation. No matter how students are being taught, I’ve learned from guests on my podcast and from conversations with school leaders nationwide that no one has really found a way to generate the levels of student engagement that we are accustomed to seeing pre-Covid.
The same can be said for the movie industry as well. Like schools, many movie cinemas have shut their doors until it is safer to resume large gatherings of people. And those that have not closed are not bringing in enough revenue to be profitable. This is causing many companies like Warner Brothers and Disney to move their content to streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+, and HBO max in an effort to adapt to this new environment.
Even with these conditions, the movie Demon Slayer: Infinity Train—based on a popular Japanese comic—that is exceeding all expectations in Japan. The movie became the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan and the fifth highest-grossing film worldwide of 2020. How did an anime movie about a young teenager and his friends fighting monsters become a smash hit now? The movie built its success off of two distinct traits that all school leaders can learn from in light of the pandemic: branding and primary purpose.
In schools, the same notion can apply. For example, let’s say prior to Covid-19, your school is known for having a strong community presence. Before the pandemic, it saw various volunteers in the classrooms assisting teachers delivering assignments and multiple community-sponsored events after school. Instead of thinking this is impossible right now, emulate what Demon Slayer did and change the platform. The creators continuously built off of what already worked and amplified the same message across multiple platforms (from comics, to anime series, and now cinema). Instead of resorting to changing the ‘brand’, they only changed the delivery mechanism. As educational leaders, we need to operate in that same vein. Invite community members on Zoom and other related platforms to assist virtual learners during synchronous and asynchronous learning. Use short videos in social media to highlight not only the great work your district is doing, but the external partnerships you are creating with well regarded, trusted educational brands like Apple, Discovery Education, and Microsoft. Have your educational leaders sponsor virtual community activities to help generate buzz and excitement for engaging. Continue to do what it is you already do, while adapting to the landscape.
Now is the perfect time to focus on why schools are important. We know what we are trying to do (educate kids) and we know how to do it (synchronous and asynchronous models, task-based assessments, etc.), but why should students and families care? In layman's terms, you will most likely hear a generic response discussing the importance of teaching our kids to prepare them for the future or something similar. While this is true, our current attendance and assessment data is shining a light on the complete opposite. Many of our students (and families) do not feel engaged, nor feel the notion to make it a priority to participate. There are a many reasons why, but we need to ask: How long have they truly felt this way? It’s easy to say the displacement and uncertainty of events has led to students being disengaged, but there are small pockets where some educators and schools are finding success under these circumstances. How is that possible?
Like the producers of Demon Slayer, successful schools clearly understand their targeted audience and are focusing all of their efforts towards that purpose. For example, if you serve a high-poverty area, you could be focused on providing nutrition to kids and addressing social and emotional concerns. Before Covid, you probably already had systems and procedures set up to tackle these needs. Now with attendance low and grades falling, you feel that the objective should alter. However, if you reflect on your school’s needs and purpose, you would find that addressing these two items will lead to the learning.
If you disguise your intentions while pushing assessments and standards on kids, then you have missed the mark entirely. You cannot have Bloom’s before Maslow. Yes, the traditional purpose is for schools to educate kids. However, working in schools, we know that each one is different and unique. Sometimes we have to take alternative routes to get to the same destination. Focus your school’s purpose on those immediate wins and the buy-in and support will generate. This is not to say there won’t be bumps and bruises along the way, it just reinforces the trust all parties have in one another to do the right thing and work together towards the same pre-established goals… only in a new progressive way.
Matthew Woods is Director of Student Support Services, Henry County (Va.) Public Schools.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance.