Since the introduction of mandatory English classes for Japan’s elementary school students in 2011, native-speaker assistant language teachers (ALTs) have become familiar faces to young Japanese children across the archipelago.

In a system where introducing new ideas and having them accepted by colleagues takes time, it can be difficult for ALTs to effect change or play an active role in curriculum development. However, the ALT at one school in Shikoku has built up an innovative English program that would be the envy of her peers in many metropolitan schools.

The school’s official name doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue — Ehime University Faculty of Education Fuzoku Elementary School — but the “fuzoku” means it is “attached” to Ehime University, a public institution in the city of Matsuyama. The school currently has 613 students, and Canadian ALT Laura Kawaguchi leads the third- to sixth-graders in their English language and culture studies.

A long-term resident of Matsuyama who built a career in English teaching, Kawaguchi took over the ALT position in 2008.

“The school wanted to prepare for mandatory foreign-language activities classes for grades 5 and 6 and to assist teaching in grade 3 and 4 international studies classes, which is part of integrated studies,” she says. “For those lower grades, I was hired so the students would become accustomed to being around a person from abroad, and to teach students about Canada, other countries and some English.”

From this conventional start, Kawaguchi quickly identified a key theme to build the curriculum around.

“My basic philosophy is the ‘Golden Rule’: treat others as you would like to be treated,” she explains. “I wanted my students to be able to interact with people different from themselves in an appropriate and friendly manner, regardless of race, nationality, age, gender, ability or circumstance.”

One avenue for fostering these skills has been the Ehime Prefectural International Center (EPIC).

“Each year they have Hawaiian interns stay for three months on a goodwill exchange, which began (as a means) to repair the relationship between the people of Ehime and Hawaii following the Ehime Maru tragedy of February 2001,” Kawaguchi says.

The Ehime Maru, a Japanese fishing ship for training high school students, was struck by a U.S. submarine as the navy vessel emerged from the water near Oahu. The ship sunk soon afterwards, and four students were among the nine Japanese who lost their lives in the tragedy.

“EPIC and their Hawaiian interns have been extremely engaging in their presentations and enthusiastic about visiting our school. We learn about Hawaii and in turn teach them about Matsuyama, Ehime and Japan,” Kawaguchi explains.

Seeking to provide her students with opportunities to interact with children their own age, in 2009 Kawaguchi tapped into her professional and personal network and reached out to an Australian school, St. Andrew’s Lutheran College in Queensland. Some of the children in the junior school (elementary division) study Japanese, making them ideal counterparts for a cultural exchange with Kawaguchi’s charges.

Beginning with an exchange of letters that summer, the fledgling relationship between the Japanese and Australian schools quickly took off. Students have since exchanged artwork, candy, photographs and voice files for language practice, as well as soft toys representing the schools’ mascots (a woodland “fairy king” and a kangaroo, respectively).

Most importantly, regular Skype sessions with the Australian children have allowed Kawaguchi’s students to develop both confidence in their language skills and cross-cultural awareness.

Fuzoku Elementary Vice Principal Keiji Tamai looked in on one of the Skype sessions recently.

“Our students were chatting in animated fashion with the Australian children. Sharing aspects of each other’s daily lives is helping the students build an awareness and appreciation of other cultures and language,” Tamai says.

“They probably aren’t even aware they are doing it at this age, and that is part of the beauty of it,” he notes. “Intercultural exchange does not have to be large-scale events or dramatic gestures. Small regular steps lead to long-term growth.”

Kawaguchi agrees that her students have developed their skills in a variety of ways.

“When we first started Skyping activities, students would just stare and not react to the screen, perhaps thinking the image of Aussie students looking back at them was a video or the TV. We have had to practice various forms of communication such as nodding and other nonverbal reactions, in addition to verbal reactions, for Skype sessions — otherwise they behave too well, just sitting still and quietly listening. This causes our friends in Australia to think a technical problem has occurred and the screen has frozen,” Kawaguchi says with a smile.

A formal exchange agreement between Ehime University and St. Andrew’s Lutheran College was signed in June 2015, also encompassing the junior high and senior high school divisions. Encouraged by the success of Kawaguchi’s programs at the elementary level, English teachers at Ehime University’s Fuzoku Junior High School are now incorporating Skype sessions into their lessons plans too.

Sharon Taki teaches the Japanese classes at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Junior School.

“One of the major advantages of the program with Laura’s students is the ability to set learning within a real-world context,” she says. “The students are asking genuine inquiry questions to children of their own age and are learning directly from the Japanese children.” She notes that is also very meaningful for her students to be aware that their Japanese counterparts are language learners just like them.

Kawaguchi isn’t one to rest on her laurels, though, and is always on the lookout for inspiration. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely of quarters.

“My husband and I have an allotment up in the mountains. Being in the outdoors is a great way to release stress,” she says. “Last spring I noticed there was a scarecrow-making contest there, which I thought would make an interesting and quirky topic for lesson content.”

Kawaguchi shared her lesson plan with Taki, and the Scarecrow Exchange Project was born. Students at both schools designed their own scarecrows, with Vice Principal Tamai selecting the best Australian and Japanese designs to enter into the local competition.

With the end of the term fast approaching, there wasn’t time last year to have the children make the scarecrows themselves, so Kawaguchi made two based on the top designs and submitted them to the contest. “No, they didn’t win,” she admits, “but the kids were intrigued by the idea.”

Some of Kawaguchi’s students visited the contest during their summer vacation to see the scarecrows for themselves.

“I think they were rather shocked to see the winning designs come to life, as it were. The child who designed the best one in Australia said she wanted to come to Japan to see her scarecrow in person,” she says.

“Now that I know about the contest, I want to improve things next year and have the children more involved in both designing and building the scarecrows.”

Word has spread about Fuzoku Elementary’s English classes and the exchange with the Australian students, and Kawaguchi often presents demonstration lessons for educators from around the country. She is also asked to give presentations on cross-cultural awareness to adults, including as a guest lecturer for students at Ehime University, and to young English teachers who have recently arrived in Shikoku on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program.

As head of international studies at Fuzoku Elementary, Sadao Sakamoto works closely with Kawaguchi.

“Her efforts are helping the children to look for connections and similarities when interacting with non-Japanese, rather than emphasizing the differences in an us-and-them way, as some Japanese tend to do,” Sakamoto says.

He adds that the majority of their students go on to attend the Fuzoku Junior High School, and that they take with them an enjoyment of English that will hold them in good stead as they continue their studies.

Kawaguchi encourages other ALTs to proactively seek ways to expose their students to people of different cultures.

“Many teachers and students’ families have friends in other countries. Keep asking around and be on the lookout for opportunities,” she suggests. “There are appropriate, reliable, interesting people in your own communities who could give children insight into life from another perspective.”

Kawaguchi makes no claims about the English skills of the Fuzoku Elementary students being significantly better than those of other students their age. However, in terms of cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity, they are ahead of their peers.

“Last year an American from Ehime University came to observe one of the international classes, and I was proud the children communicated with him in English — and in a very polite, appropriate but friendly and welcoming manner. He was there to merely observe, but they confidently and warmly involved him,” she recalls.

She contrasts this with a recent experience that practically all foreign nationals in Japan will identify with.

“While in a store in town I was pointed at repeatedly by a child my students’ age” — from another school, she stresses. “While I am understanding of this behavior in children, I also know from my time with my students that children are capable of respectfully reacting to people different from themselves.”

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