Professional Learning

From Spearfish to Sakaide City: A Teacher’s Odyssey

An educational journey to Japan enriches a fourth-grade teacher’s career.

June 6, 2002

Kathy Christensen spent much of her six-week stay in Japan at Sakaide Elementary School, where she taught lessons, observed classrooms, and immersed herself in Japanese school life.

Credit: Kathy Christensen

It's a long way from Spearfish, South Dakota, to Sakaide City, Japan -- nearly 6,000 miles, in fact. But through a unique cross-cultural exchange program sponsored by the Japanese government, teachers in these two cities have forged a partnership that has overcome differences in language and culture.

Before the summer of 2000, Kathy Christensen had never been outside the United States. She'd spent most of her life in the small Midwest town of Spearfish, where she teaches fourth grade at East Elementary School. Travel opportunities for Keizou Moriyama, one of Christensen's partner teachers from Sakaide Elementary School, had been equally limited.

And then both teachers became involved in the Fulbright Memorial Fund. Suddenly their world -- and that of their students -- got a whole lot bigger.

Christensen, a veteran of twenty-seven years in the classroom, was one of the original sixteen teachers selected by the Fulbright Memorial Fund (FMF) to participate in its Master Teacher Program, which matches experienced classroom teachers from the U.S. with counterparts in Japan. Through site visits and ongoing online activities, the program aims to increase understanding between students and educators in Japan and the U.S. and to provide teachers from both countries with rich and rewarding professional development opportunities.

Despite the formal uniforms and differing school traditions, Sakaide students have much in common with their counterparts in Spearfish, South Dakota.

Credit: Kathy Christensen

Up Close and Personal

In June and July of 2000, Christensen and her colleagues from K-12 schools throughout the U.S. spent six weeks in Japan, where they got a crash course in the language and culture and a firsthand look at the Japanese school system. Much of Christensen's time in Japan was spent at Sakaide Elementary School in Sakaide City, located on the small island of Shikoku in southern Japan. That's where she was partnered with Moriyama and two of his colleagues, Akira Nishihara and Masahiro Nishiura.

During her days and weeks at Sakaide, Christensen observed classes, attended cultural and recreational events, and soaked in everything from playground etiquette to classroom management techniques. She even taught some lessons, using FOSS (Full Option Science System) kits developed by the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California, to conduct hands-on science experiments in which the Japanese fifth graders learned about the properties of water.

In one activity, for example, students filled an eyedropper with water and had to estimate how many drops would fit on a penny before the water spilled over the sides. Students were surprised to discover that as many as 45 drops of water could fit on a penny instead of the eight to ten drops they had originally guessed. The simple exercise vividly demonstrated the phenomenon of surface tension -- one of the properties of water the students were exploring.

Although the students spoke no English and Christensen knew just a few words in Japanese, the lessons proved a fun learning experience for all concerned. "First I would perform one of the experiments and then the students would do the same activity," recalls Christensen, who made sure to have instructions in Japanese to help the students get over the inevitable language hurdles.

Students at Sakaide Elementary practice a simple, yet effective form of conflict resolution: rock-paper-scissors.

Credit: Kathy Christensen

Lessons Learned

Christensen arrived back home in Spearfish, a community of 7,000 in South Dakota's famed Black Hills, with a newfound appreciation for Japanese education and culture and with a new repertoire of teaching strategies that she was eager to begin using in her classroom.

"One of the first things I noticed in the Japanese classrooms was how much the students and teachers enjoyed learning," says Christensen. "They all worked really hard, but they were also able to be playful -- to have fun with one another, she adds. "There's always so much to teach and do that I think sometimes I forget about having fun, too."

Dispute resolution is another area where Christensen learned a lot from her Japanese colleagues and their students. During lunch and recess, Christensen was surprised to discover that Japanese students played in the schoolyard without any adult supervision. If a young student fell down, an older student would come over and help the child to the nurse's office. And when a disagreement arose, even students as young as four and five years old resolved their disputes on their own, using the seemingly universal game of rock-paper-scissors to decide whose turn it was to bounce the ball or who got to jump rope first.

"It was awesome to see the students able to take care of their own problems," marvels Christensen, who now encourages her own students to use the time-honored game to resolve classroom or playground disputes.

Through their collaborations with their Japanese counterparts, students and teachers at East Elementary have developed a keen appreciation for Japanese culture.

Credit: Kathy Christensen

Bridging Two Cultures

The Fulbright Memorial Fund was established by the Japanese government in 1996 to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. State Department-funded Fulbright Scholar program, which has brought more than 6,800 Japanese scholars to the U.S. to study. It was the Japanese government's very tangible way of saying thank you to the United States for the opportunities afforded its scholars and students, many of whom are now leaders in Japanese government and industry.

In its first year, the program paid for 600 U.S. educators to travel to Japan for three weeks to learn about the country's culture and education system. It was soon expanded to include the Master Teacher Program, designed to provide not only for a more extended stay in Japan (six weeks, instead of the original three), but also to include yearlong collaborations between partner schools in both Japan and the United States.

Personal visits by Japanese and U.S. educators lay the groundwork for ongoing collaborations throughout the subsequent school year. For Christensen and her colleagues in Spearfish, those collaborations included several projects related to the environment -- a key focus area for all FMF participants. In the BUGS (Biodiversity - Understanding Global Systems) project, students from Spearfish and Sakaide spent the same week collecting and cataloging insects in their area. They followed similar protocols (collecting insects for one hour in a square meter area, for example) and then shared their findings through digital photos and presentations, which they exchanged via e-mail.

In a second project, students cooperated on a water quality study in which students at both schools tested local stream water using kits supplied by the Japanese teachers. Both communities share a concern about water pollution. The streams near Spearfish had been polluted by gold mines that once dotted the landscape. In Sakaide (as in much of Japan), the dense population has taken its toll on the area's freshwater streams. After many years of cleanup efforts, the Spearfish streams now run clear -- a point that was made crystal clear when the Spearfish students held up a vial of pink (indicating highly oxygenated) water for their Japanese counterparts to see during a videoconference session. The Sakaide water, on the other hand, was an aqua color -- indicating a low oxygen level. The Japanese students have now taken it upon themselves to explore ways in which they can clean up their local stream.

Web-based videoconferencing (using CUseeMe software) is just one example of how FMF organizers have encouraged participating teachers from both countries to become adept at using a wide range of tech tools. For Christensen and many of her U.S. counterparts, that's meant taking classes at the local university and learning to adapt to the inevitable glitches that arise when incorporating new hardware and software tools into lessons. Many of the participating Japanese schools and teachers have become technology pioneers, as they were some of the first schools in the country to benefit from use of high-speed Internet connections and cutting-edge tools.

One of the highlights of Kathy Christensen's visit to Japan was teaching science lessons to the students at Sakaide Elementary.

Credit: Kathy Christensen

Ties That Bind

Although their official participation in the program ended in the spring of 2001, Christensen and her colleagues at East Elementary continue to work on joint projects with the students and teachers at Sakaide Elementary. They participate in regular videoconferences to say hello, share information, and present the results of joint projects, exchange videos and PowerPoint® presentations about their school or recent projects, and continue to send e-mail messages back and forth with student-driven questions about everything from extracurricular activities to lunch menus.

"It's about building relationships," says Hank Fridell, Christensen's former principal and an FMF alumnus himself. Fridell, who is now principal at neighboring West Elementary School in Spearfish, continues to correspond with his Japanese colleagues and is an active supporter of the FMF program. Thanks to his ongoing efforts, two more Spearfish teachers will be FMF Master teachers during the 2002-2003 school year.

"Each new relationship changes your possibilities as a person," says Fridell. "Now, when something comes up in the news about Japan, it's not just another clip going across the TV screen. We all think to ourselves, 'I know someone there. I wonder how this event is impacting them.'"

Christensen couldn't agree more. She's seen firsthand how working with and learning from Japanese students and teachers has broadened the perspective of her fourth graders in Spearfish.

"What the kids noticed more than anything is that Japanese students are a lot like them. They enjoy many of the same activities, wear the same clothes, even carry backpacks," says Christensen. "They've learned to appreciate another culture, and they've come to understand that we're all really more alike than we are different."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

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