Almost 20 years ago, Teri Suzanne stood in front of a packed audience in Tokyo at the Association of English Teachers of Children, and unveiled her “English in Action” method with what was then a radical declaration: “I know that young children have the capacity to learn multiple languages by connecting words to actions.”

This might be accepted wisdom now, but in 1983, teaching English through action and words was not a common practice for preschool or elementary teachers. Not that Teri Suzanne (her professional name) let this hinder her — she was a pioneer in a field that had high ideals but little in the way of a curriculum.

Her journey from lone voice to recognized authority on early childhood bilingual education was a long one. It began in the United States, where she used English to teach children of Japanese descent for seven years, under the fledgling Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program of the San Francisco Unified School District.

Teri Suzanne watched how children learned and instinctively knew that an integrated curriculum — where subjects were not separated but instead combined in an exciting, energetic way — would be in the best interest of her pupils.

“Math with music. Science with art and sports, but in total-body commitment. They’re not sitting down and learning,” Teri Suzanne said. “They’re learners in motion.”

Her “English in Action” method first took shape when she began to incorporate into classes the fun activities that she herself liked. The kids would sing, dance, act, cook and play sports — all with the aim of learning English.

She began by translating Japanese songs. One was the traditional folk tune “Otsukisama.” When a Japanese child in the class excitedly said he knew the song, Teri Suzanne encouraged him to teach it to the other kids. “When kids know the content in their native language, they can learn English so much faster,” she said.

When she returned to Tokyo with her Japanese husband and two young daughters in 1980, Teri Suzanne joined the kindergarten staff at the International School of the Sacred Heart in Hiroo. Around the same time, she approached major television stations with the concept of a bilingual children’s program, only to be told that bilingual methods were unknown and second-language acquisition at early ages “might overload the circuits of a child’s brain.”

From her own experience, she knew this was ridiculous. Her daughters, Kunimi and Mayuka, were not only speaking in English and Japanese but had swiftly mastered the very difficult tasks of switching back and forth between two languages.

By 1985, however, Teri Suzanne’s ideas were meeting with more acceptance. ALC Press began publishing a monthly booklet and cassette with stories read by Teri Suzanne and her daughters, then 6 and 8 years old.

When the National Children’s Castle opened in Aoyama later that year, its founding director, Yoshimi Takeuchi, invited her to head the international division and bring “English in Action” into the castle.

“Takeuchi was a visionary,” Teri Suzanne explained. “He wanted the arts to be interactive. The reason he built the castle was so kids could be creative with their whole bodies. We had the same philosophy. He liked the fact that I was incorporating the two languages into dramatic expression, music and the arts.”

Takeuchi gave her carte blanche to develop her ideas. The cornerstone of her activities was Japan’s first bilingual family theater. Over the next 15 years, Teri Suzanne produced about 150 shows on a round stage that was ideal for encouraging audience participation.

“My mom always told teachers to remember that when you’re teaching, you’re on stage. Every word, action and expression affects the lives of your most important audience, your students,” says Mayuka, who, like her older sister, performed in Teri Suzanne’s productions and who teaches alongside both her mother and sister at Willowbrook, an English preschool in Tokyo.

The bilingual theater at the National Children’s Castle was, in a sense, Teri Suzanne’s lab for creative experimentation, for developing jazzy songs with urgent messages for children and parents. She used music and dance to bring the families in the audience together with the performers.

It seemed that she had opened up a whole new avenue of interactive learning. Teri Suzanne was approached by record and educational publishers who hadn’t considered family-centered music before. Eight CDs, including the popular “Doki Doki Family,” were the result.

“Families whose hearts beat together stay together,” explained Teri Suzanne. “Doki doki refers to a beating sound. If someone says they are ‘doki doki shite imasu,’ it means they are waiting in anticipation. Their heart is beating fast. I like the sound of these words. ‘I love my family’ is not a phrase that is openly said by children here. Through music we were trying to help children and families express it and not feel embarrassed.”

In 1994, to mark her 100th bilingual family production at the Children’s Castle and pay tribute to her late husband, who had passed away suddenly the same year, Teri Suzanne put out “Thanks Santa,” a CD that teaches children the importance of being thankful not only for material gifts but for gifts of the heart, such as dreams, joy, smiles and family time together. The song and Teri Suzanne’s Mrs. Santa character have featured at the Takamatsu Winter Festival for the past five years.

“It’s been wonderful to see the reaction of her audience,” says Steve Tootell, head of creative and performing arts at the International School of the Sacred Heart and composer of a number of Teri Suzanne’s songs. “Young children, who aren’t inhibited, instantly become involved in the shows. Teri gives the kids an opportunity to stand up and act out the songs.”

In July this year, Teri Suzanne and her children’s troupe were chosen to open the new 750-seat theater of the Olympic Memorial Center in Yoyogi. On stage, as the bilingual mistress of ceremonies, Teri Suzanne sparkled. Several times the entire audience was encouraged to get up and dance.

Just as unexpected for a newcomer to Teri Suzanne’s productions was the sight of children descending into the audience with small scissors and origami paper, making animals and handing them out. “Magic Scissors” came to Teri Suzanne in the early 1990s as a way of developing preschoolers’ motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and at the same time putting English into action. “Teri’s Magic Scissors” was aired on the NHK Education Channel and subsequently made into a three-book set. The books were co-written with Kunimi and, at her suggestion, written from the point of view of the scissors.

“A basic cut acts as a springboard for the imagination, and then the sky’s the limit,” she explained. “Once they learn some basic cutting techniques they branch off into creating whatever they want. Children will amaze you with their genius and potential.”

Fulfilling a life’s dream for Teri Suzanne, “English in Action” will next year be made available worldwide via the Internet. In Japan, the curriculum will be used in elementary schools nationwide as a teaching tool for the sogoteki na gakushu no jikan (official study periods).

Teri Suzanne will continue to lecture nationwide to teachers, parent groups and classrooms about the discoveries she’s still making by joining simple words to simply brilliant actions.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.