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SARNIA, Ontario — While the number of Japanese language learners and educators in Canadian schools is growing, elementary schools like Gregory A. Hogan, a Catholic institution here, are eager for teaching intern Akiko Samukawa’s volunteer services.

The 26-year-old native of Kobe interned three months at Riverside Public School in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, and six months in Sarnia.

In Sarnia, Samukawa assisted kindergarten and first-grade teachers and devoted Fridays to Japanese lessons for grades one though six.

“It’s good learning a new language,” said 11-year-old Philip Lubus as he constructed his paper “happi” coat. Samukawa had prepared the activity for fifth-grade students while they waited to try on “yukata” summer kimonos and happi coats during a lesson on Japanese clothing.

“Making origami and sushi have been the most interesting activities. I like sushi,” Lubus said.

Laura Bandieras, 12, said her thoughts on the national dish weren’t as pleasant. However, the sixth-grader said it’s good to learn about another part of the world and what it’s like to live there.

Bandieras’ teacher, Monica Kennedy, said, “I’ve welcomed the lessons because the grade six curriculum deals with Canada and its trade partners, so learning about Japan has fitted quite well.”

With Canada’s introduction two years ago of a culture-based social studies curriculum, individual heritage is being exemplified and shared by students, said second-grade teacher Randi Maheu, whose 7- and 8-year-old pupils received Japanese lessons from Samukawa every Friday.

The new curriculum specifically spells out how heritage is to be taught by incorporating student-generated cultural information into lessons.

“But since we have no Japanese students in my class, Akiko’s lessons give them an extra heritage to learn,” Maheu said.

“Parents approach me when they visit the school, saying they are glad to have me teaching and that it’s a good opportunity for their children,” Samukawa said.

The full impact of her six-month stay was illustrated when students told her that they wanted to visit Japan to experience what she had taught them.

Samukawa’s nine-month internship was organized through International Internship Programs, a nongovernmental, self-supporting organization based in Tokyo.

But it was not her first introduction to foreign-based education.

In 1994, as a teaching major at Mukogawa Women’s Junior College in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, Samukawa and 40 other students attended St. Martin’s College in Lacey, Wash., to study the American education system and culture.

“The experience changed my mind completely. Although I did not speak English well then and had no teaching experience, I knew I wanted to work with foreign kids,” she said.

However, lacking the English skills to follow her ambition, Samukawa started working at Jinai Kindergarten, a private institution in Kobe.

By April 1998, after three years with the kindergarten, Samukawa quit to study English overseas. By then she had already seen a newspaper ad for IIP teaching positions but felt her English was insufficient.

In Vancouver, British Columbia, Samukawa joined the YMCA English Language Institute. There she attended daily classes and the annual International Student Conference.

In early 1999, eager to take advantage of any opportunity to better her leadership skills, Samukawa got involved in the ISC’s organizing committee.

“That year was the most valuable for me. I will never be able to experience the friendships, different cultures and independence like I did then,” she said.

By May 1999, Samukawa was back in Japan, but not for long. She had been accepted as a volunteer IIP intern.

Established in 1979, IIP has sponsored thousands of Japanese on professional exchanges worldwide.

Samukawa returned to Canada under IIP’s teaching assistant program. After a few months in Sarnia, her influence on Hogan was difficult to miss.

The halls, wallpapered with 89 kanji, hiragana and katakana banners reading “kokoro” (heart) and “konnichiwa,” new words for the day’s lesson, greeted all who entered the school. Classrooms adorned with paper crane motifs created a colorful setting.

And students, heightened with anticipation whenever Samukawa entered their class with her boxes of cultural treasure, were very disappointed if scheduling changes denied them the chance to learn from their personal ambassador.

“Having Akiko at the school has been absolutely phenomenal and adds another dimension to educating the children,” said Jo Kulik, Samukawa’s home-stay mother, who is also a special education teacher at Hogan.

Kulik’s husband, Henry, is superintendent of education for the St. Clair Catholic School Board, of which the school belongs.

“Akiko brings a cultural content to learning and it is reciprocal in her learning the Canadian school system and culture,” he said. “She gives another dimension to the school, not just as an assistant, but by giving varied exposure to the kids.”

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