Eighty-Four Days as an English Language Learner
"Gud mo-ning," the first graders' voices rose in chorus. "Good morning. O-hay-o gozai-masu," I replied, as I entered the lobby of Furuya Elementary School in Kawagoe, Japan. Students greeted me with a bouquet of flowers and a paper chain lei they'd made. An education official from Saitama prefecture (one of 47 governmental bodies in Japan) joined them and their principal. What a warm welcome! I wish every graduate of our MAT program could begin a school day like this.
How do teachers in Japan integrate their curriculum with the community? Here's an example. All elementary schools in Saitama prefecture include hands-on learning about rice. At a nearby field, Furuya Elementary fifth graders used scythes to cut and bundle rice stalks. In April they had sowed the seeds, and each month afterward they carefully tended their crop. On the day of my visit, a local farmer supervised their labor, and parents joined them to reap and load their harvest on a truck. Once the bundles of rice had hung from their school fence long enough to dry, students would learn to cook curry rice, a popular dish in Japan. They'd then sell the rest of their produce to pay expenses for the next year's harvest. This year-long project, mandated by their prefecture, engaged students in learning about their country's most important crop, so important that "gohan," the word for cooked rice, also means "meal."
I observed other examples of hands-on, practical, and cooperative learning. At Kawagoe Dai Ichi Elementary School, students' systematic arrival at school demonstrated leadership and cooperation. Without buses, classmates relied on each other to make their way safely to school, some walking for as long as an hour before passing their school gate at 7:45 AM. Older students (visible with their colored baseball caps) led the younger students (wearing white caps) from their vicinities. (Once at school, all students turned their caps inside out to reveal their class colors: red for first graders, yellow for second graders, etc.) On that day, the school held a festival to involve children and their parents in problem solving exercises. Students in cross-grade groups (composed of a 1st grader, 2nd grader, on up to 6th grader) created an activity, devised and wrote rules, and then introduced the format to visitors. During the next hour, I used chopsticks to pick up as many beans as I could, threw balloons into holes cut from cardboard, shot targets with rubber bands aimed from contrived pencil shooters, felt unseen objects to guess their identities, rushed through mazes after guessing answers to riddles, and joined in other student-led activities. Some definitely challenged me, since I'm a novice learner of Japanese. But I did have the chance to be a language model. Vice principal Hitoshi Hidema motioned 6th graders to practice their English with me: "Hi, my name is _____. I am glad to meet you." Next year, in fact, all elementary school students in Japan will begin learning English, currently a mandatory class in Japanese middle schools.
My 84 days in Japan offered an eye opening way to view life as a second language learner. Each new experience was a benchmark: making change at the grocery store, using my Pasmo ticket to board the train, following foreign directions to meet new acquaintances in a busy train station, even pushing the correct button to wash my clothes. During my fall sabbatical at Tokyo International University, I attended a beginning Japanese language class and continued research to follow up on my upcoming book on Japanese American World War II veterans. It was a wonderful experience, though I'm also happy to be home. But I feel enriched by what I learned and hope I will be more vigilant to newcomers confused by their surroundings in Oregon. I wish every teacher could experience the confusion, anxiety, and excitement I felt in Japan! Those Aha! moments, I hope, will make me a more effective, more empathetic teacher.