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Staff writer

NAKANO, Nagano Pref. — “Do you know the meaning of ‘identity’?” “What makes you similar and different from others?” — These are the questions Ethan Levitas asks students in an English class at Nakano Nishi High School.

The American artist has been conducting a series of groundbreaking guest classes on cross-cultural communication in public junior high and high schools in the prefecture since June.

It is a homecoming of sorts for Levitas, 28, who taught English as an assistant language teacher under the Education Ministry’s Japan Exchange and Teaching program at junior high schools throughout Nagano Prefecture six years ago.

In his teaching project, titled “Conversation Continued,” Levitas uses 24 life-size portraits of Americans from various ethnic, racial, social and religious backgrounds. The photographs, which he has taken over the past three years, are paired into 12 panels.

At the beginning of a class for third-year students at Nakano Nishi, Levitas examined the many elements that help form a person’s identity, such as nationality, ethnicity, region, culture as well as individual factors such as family, experience and ambitions.

Levitas says Japanese students are not accustomed to thinking about identity on an individual basis because of the “homogeneous” nature of Japanese society. “But I think that without that sense it is very difficult to connect with others, either inside or outside of Japan.

“Of course, people have different identities in Japan. Each person has a different past, different experiences and different sense of their own future,” he said. “But in Japan, people do not publicly think in this way — so much so that there is actually no word like ‘identity’ in the Japanese language.”

Levitas uses the concept of identity “as a place to start the conversation.” In the first of two sessions, the students explore the definition of the word in the classroom before Levitas directs their attention to the photographic installation.

Students are asked to choose one panel of paired photos and to decide whether the two individuals are more similar or more different.

In comparing people, students must not only consider race, group and gender, but also try to interpret what each individual is expressing.

In the second session, they compare themselves with one of the people in the photographs, in an attempt to make an individual connection. And finally, using their imagination to explore that connection, the students write a conversation with that person.

The important thing is that there is no right or wrong answer. Levitas explains: “I’m not asking them for facts. I am asking them to form an individual opinion based on their own sense of self.

“In the photographs, the students see and feel that these individuals have many different identities, and hence realize that they can’t rely on stereotypes. But the students then find, in their own words, that these two people are connected.”

One Nakano Nishi student, Eri Shibukawa, analyzed Levitas’ photographs of a Baptist woman from Tennessee and a young American Indian man from Montana, pointing to their similarity.

“They are of different ethnicity and race, and what they believe in is also different. But they both have a strong belief in, and are proud of, their religion or tradition,” she said.

Misako Karasawa, another student, said she found something in common between herself and an American Indian boy from Wyoming.

She said the boy looked very determined, yet he also has anxieties, which resembles her own state of mind.

“I have something that I am strongly determined to do now. That photo made me realize how much I was thinking about it,” she said.

Although it is an English class, Levitas and the students use Japanese.

“For them to speak freely, express their own interpretations, and explore these concepts in a meaningful way, this conversation must be done in Japanese,” he said.

Atsufumi Kumai, an English teacher at Nakano Nishi, said he was surprised at how seriously the students took the class, noting they were so sensitive to the photographs that none of them left the installation when the bell rang.

“This is a kind of lesson we’ve never done before. But I could see students being able to begin a ‘conversation’ with people in the photographs,” Kumai said.

Michiko Muroi, an English teacher at Suzaka High School, which also accepted Levitas’ project, said the classes “inspire” students to learn English as a means of cross-cultural communication.

Muroi said English education in Japanese schools has two pillars — learning language skills and learning about other cultures.

“But many teachers say they don’t know what to do about the second pillar. Ethan showed us these are the kind of things we can do,” she said.

However, she also noted a dilemma every teacher faces: “We wish we had more time for the cross-cultural study part, but we’re constantly pressured to teach the textbooks to have the students prepare for the entrance exams.”

Levitas spent a year preparing and developing his volunteer project. He raised financial support from organizations such as the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission and the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership, and directly contacted schools in Nagano to explain the concept.

Eventually, about 10 schools accepted and participated in his project, which will conclude at the end of this month.

But Levitas plans to make a replica curriculum that Japanese teachers can work with after he returns to the U.S.

Yasuhito Takahashi, an official at the Nagano Prefectural Board of Education, said Japanese students must first understand their own identity and culture before they can understand other cultures.

“In that sense, I think Ethan’s project is very meaningful,” he said.

At the end of the class at Nakano Nishi, Levitas said to the students, in English: “Why do you study English?

“If you study English, then you have one more chance to be able to connect with others. English isn’t a goal, it’s just another means, another way for you to expand your own world.”

Conversation Continued can be reached by e-mail at: convcontinued@ netscape.net

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