Ms. Maureen Quiery
Reading Consultant Specialist
Pleasant Hill Elementary School, Community Consolidated School District 15
Inspired. Wonder. Amazed. Joy. These are just some of the words that come to mind as I reflect on my amazing opportunity to visit Japan. It is easy to say there are no words to describe my experience but it is true. Emotions come to the surface. Faces of people and children pop into my mind as well as picturesque images. It was an experience of a lifetime.
Seeing Japan with an amazing group of educators, made this opportunity far more powerful. I feel I was able to process the information better talking to the other teachers. Having teachers from around the United States, Canada and Belgium, each bringing their own experiences, was such an advantage. We could each share how we work with our Japanese students. As the trip progressed, we talked about how we could take this wealth of knowledge back to our schools and improve our teaching. There is something special when a bunch of teachers get together. At the heart of all conversations, we have a shared commitment to do what is best for kids. The passion and enthusiasm for what we do connects us all together no matter where or what we teach.
From the time I walked out of customs in the Tokyo airport, I was treated like royalty. There were people who welcomed us and arranged our transportation that took us to our hotel. At the hotel, we were greeted by the International Educators to Japan (IEJ) organizers. We were given a packet of very well organized information and told where we were to meet in the morning.
Orientation was the next day. We learned about the school system in Japan. This was the first time all the educators were together. Being in a foreign country it was comforting to meet the people who would be with me in Japan sharing this experience. The IEJ staff was also introduced and each educator stood up and shared what we hoped to gain from this experience. We were all anticipating the whirlwind adventure we were about to take together. The IEJ staff ended up being the most amazing group of individuals; they took such good care of us. They had been planning this for months in advance. Their work was exceptional. This was evident every moment we were there. That afternoon we had a kimono wearing experience. We were each dressed by a trained woman. It was like watching an artist create a masterpiece. This was a fun and unforgettable experience.
We traveled all around Japan. We had the opportunity to spend time in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyoto and Nara. We visited a wide variety of schools around Japan. We visited public, private and international schools. Each school had its own unique program. Something that connected the schools together was a sense of engagement in the education process. Smiles were observed watching classes, speaking to the students, and sharing meals. There is no language barrier when you share smiles or a good laugh. The leadership at these schools was very impressive. Each administrator and teacher welcomed us into their schools to show us the students’ education in action. As an educator, this was an amazing window into the education of Japanese students. This helped me see firsthand what my students from Japan experience before coming to Chicago and when they return to Japan.
One of the many highlights was our visit to Tachiai Elementary School. When we first arrived we were brought up on stage and introduced to the entire school. Their brass band even performed a concert for us! I was taken by the hand to one of the first grade classrooms where I would teach my first demonstration lesson. I introduced several vocabulary words. We learned through pictures and the song: Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. The students helped me with the Japanese words and it was fun to sing and dance. After a few rounds of the song and some practice, we played BINGO using the pictures of the body parts. The students could say the English or Japanese word to place a chip on the board. We played several rounds and danced to the song again, each time the song got faster and faster. In the end I passed out American flag pencils and I was exhausted! Then I did the same thing again with another class. This class was very different and I needed additional help. A fellow teacher from the program, an AP Biology teacher from Colorado, came into the room to take some pictures. I asked him if he wanted to help (I didn’t exactly give him a choice) and we taught the lesson together. I learned so much from this experience. I learned exactly what it was like to be the only person in the room who did not speak the language. I learned that I needed some support. I can’t imagine how frustrating and exhausting it must be for a student in my classroom to not understand one word all day. I only had to do it for two classes. This was very eye opening. This experience will make me a better teacher, remembering the feelings I experienced.
One of my favorite stories was lunch at Tachiai. The student lunch helpers were all dressed in full out chef outfits. They wheeled the food in and helped the teacher serve the food. Each child was responsible for taking out their placemat and washing their hands. Once all the students were served the children brought back their plates and put back what they could not eat. Then when everyone had their plates we began to eat the delicious meal. I was eating around my plate trying a bit of everything, when the kids at my table laughed hysterically telling the students around me what I did. I was clueless. I took a bite of my melon! That was dessert and you eat it last. From that point on the students were extremely helpful. One student opened my milk, the others pointed to what I should eat first, how to use chop sticks and all sorts of little details I knew nothing about. We laughed and smiled through the meal. They helped me with every aspect of the meal. Students went back and played “Rock, Paper, Scissors” for second helpings. My table friends folded all the milk cartons into one. A big take away from lunch was how willing Japanese students are to help, how they do not waste anything, their amazing manners, and their ownership of the classroom. Something I will definitely bring back to my school.
The Hiroshima City Motomachi Elementary School was a very eye opening experience. The principal was nothing short of amazing. The focus of this school is to learn together in a multicultural community. He accomplishes this by identifying and nurturing self esteem. He chose a child who did not like to come to school, in fact didn’t come on a regular basis, to speak to the group. She had a big dream to go to college in America. Her English was good and the principal told us that our applause would really help this girl. She did a phenomenal job and smiled when she was done. This principal’s action showed he believed in the mission of the school and proved it.
International Schools and their daily schedule were like nothing I have ever seen. The schedules they create for their students are masterfully planned. In addition to their rigorous academic schedule, schools include classes that are important to Japanese culture. Students are expected to participate in extracurricular activities. At least one of the International Schools has class for half a day on Saturday in addition to regular school week. Some students have a commute that can be up to two hours each way and they do it alone. I really enjoyed the question and answer sessions with the students to hear about their backgrounds, what they thought about school, and their outside interests. They were so well spoken I think these children will be ruling the world someday with the global prospective they are being taught. One of the funnier moments was when a girl said she must watch an hour of American television. The hour she looked forward to was The Kardasians, not exactly America’s finest hour. At another International School we had an amazing session of question and answer with the head of the school. His English was excellent. By this point the group had gotten better asking targeted questions and this man graciously answered all of them.
The time I spent with my host family, more accurately described as my Japan forever home, was perfect. I was excited to stay with a host family, yet it was the part I was most stressed about. The Hasagawa family could not have been more gracious. It is really hard to write this because I am always on the verge of tears when I talk about them. Futoshi, Yuki and Rena took me into their home and in two short days a bond was created that will stand the test of time. We were in contact while I was still in Japan and now that I am home it continues. I don’t know how the IEJ did it, but it was a perfect match. They teach English to children and I was privileged to sleep in a room with a closet full of books. It made me feel right at home because I am surrounded by books in my role as a reading specialist in my school. I can’t image two kinder people teaching young children. They offered me so many choices, but I really wanted to live their daily life. And that is what we did. The first night I was there, we picked up Rena from dance class. Each meal was eaten together as a family and we talked about everything, just a normal conversation. I wanted to write down what they were saying, but the experience of just being with them was far more important. They were as interested in me as I was in them. We stayed up talking about all sorts of things, our families, our homes, our schools and so much more. I showed them pictures of my life and they shared pictures of theirs. Futoshi and Yuki treated me like family and I was at ease the entire time.
The last school we visited was an elementary school affiliated with the Nara Woman’s University. We watched a math class where the students put up the work that they taught themselves the night before. Students solved the problem in different ways. They talked about this, and then near the end of the class the teacher spoke. After the teacher spoke there was time for the students to stand up one at a time to reflect on all of the work in front of them. The class took responsibility for their own learning and showed great respect to the other members of this community of learners.
In addition to the school visits, we experienced Japan’s great treasures and highlighted the rich history and traditions in Japan. We visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Nara and learned so much from all the tour guides provided. They gave us wonderful suggestions on what to explore during our free time. The IEJ did a great job planning visits to amazing places. We saw many temples and shrines and experienced a very powerful day at Hiroshima. We had a guided tour through Peace Memorial Park, a lecture from a survivor of the A-Bomb and an opportunity to experience the amazing museum. We visited Miyajima, experiencing the Itsukushima Shrine. In addition to the guided tour, we were given time to explore the island on our own. Seeing the The Golden Pavilion and exploring the surrounding area can’t be described. The Todaiji-temple was breath taking. We were welcomed by a high ranking monk who gave us an up close and personal look at the Great Buddha, ending with a blessing. These are just a few of the sights and experiences we encountered throughout the trip. Throughout the trip we experienced some of the finest cuisine and explored the famous market areas.
Ms. Wakita and Mr. Hattori, from the IEJ, were by far the best ambassadors of Japan. They were so kind, personable and helpful. They went above and beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I felt safe and well prepared for everyday. They planned one fantastic experience after another. They answered any and all questions we had. They helped us find the trains we needed to take during our free time, often navigating us through the train station. If we needed help planning our free time they would help us figure out the details. I feel like I made the most out of every moment in Japan. This was possible because of the countless generous people who were responsible for this amazing gift.
It is impossible to put together words to thank the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Chicago (JCCC). Your JEEP program is the most powerful experience I have ever had as an educator. Just the fact that you sent me is hard to believe. I woke up every morning in disbelief that I was involved in this amazing program. No matter what I say to others about the program, it will never do it justice. I fell in love with your country, Japan.