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Raising Global Students Through Japanese Language

Jonathan Burr Elementary School held its annual Japan Day on April 11, and students and teachers spent the afternoon demonstrating the art of taiko drumming and Japanese calligraphy, making various crafts such as origami and fans, and playing kendama and kamizumo. Counsel General Masaharu Yoshida of the Japanese Consulate to Chicago visited Burr to take part in the celebration of Japanese culture and language.

Located in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, Jonathan Burr Elementary School is one of a few Chicago Public Schools with the Japanese language program. The school started offering the Japanese language program in the 1990s and today, students from preschool through the 8th grade learn the language as their second or third language.

Every morning, the school announcements start with “Good morning, Buenos dias, and Ohayo-gozaimasu!” The hallways of the four-story school are filled with students’ works, many of them incorporating Japanese writing and crafts. The Japanese language is part of students’ everyday academic life

Principal William R. Klee, who usually greets students “Hello, Hola, and Kon-nichiwa,” embraces the Japanese program as a way to give his students skills to understand and embrace other cultures, leaving them well-prepared to live and work in an increasingly interconnected world.
“The Japanese language program at Burr allows me to realize my vision of producing global students,” said Mr. Klee in an interview.
Mr. Klee went to Japan last summer through a grant from the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Chicago and visited nine cities in 15 days, including seven elementary and junior high schools, two of which were in tsunami-affected prefectures. The trip was an “extremely insightful and a wonderfully intense immersion into Japanese culture and education system,” Mr. Klee said.
“Through the JCCC grant, the educational exchange between the Japanese and American schools allowed me to bring back a deeper understanding of the culture. My visit reinforced my motto for Burr of the importance of a ‘global student’ as it proved to me that students need to be academically educated but also culturally aware in order to navigate in a global society,” he added.

Although many students enjoy learning another language and parents appreciate the school offering the Japanese language program, it has been a challenge to keep the program going because of the Chicago Public School System’s budget cuts in recent years. However, two parent organizations, Friends of Burr and the Burr School Parent Teacher Organization, raise funds to support the Japanese program and events such as Japan Day.
Ms. Colleen Dillon, president of Friends of Burr (FOB), said her group also supports “the Pre-K Japanese program as the school lost funding for this position I believe 5 years ago. We give over $6,000 for a teacher to come in and give instruction to the Pre-K students as we believe it is important that Japanese instruction starts as soon as students enter Burr.”

This year, FOB set aside $2,500 to train teachers in taiko drumming. The school used to offer the taiko drumming afterschool program and many students and parents have shown a keen interest in reviving the taiko program. The school owns beautiful taiko drums and costumes.
“The Japanese program is so important to Burr,” said Ms. Dillon, who has two daughters attending Burr. “Students are not only learning a language, but they are learning another culture that they may not ever be exposed too.”
“I love that my girls are being exposed to the Japanese culture. They are learning about different foods, stories, dress and music. They are learning the beautiful way the Japanese language is written and the history of Japan.”

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At Japan Day, I had an opportunity to teach shodo or Japanese calligraphy to upper grade students. I grew up in Okinawa, Japan, and now live and work in Chicago, and my son attends kindergarten at Burr. I was pleasantly surprised that many students were able to write their names in Japanese letters, and I was moved by the students’ curiosity and enthusiasm about the artistic nature of Japanese writing. I initially planned on teaching just one or two characters in calligraphy but the students wanted more.
It was hard to keep up with those young stars. I was really touched when some students returned to the classroom to collect their dried calligraphy works.
I feel confident the students’ curiosity about other cultures will be cultivated by Burr’s highly qualified Japanese instructor, Mr. Steven Trussell, who taught English at a high school in Japan for 10 years.
Mr. Trusell teaches the Japanese language and culture through songs and crafts and he really explains to students the linguistic aspects that I really appreciate. I’m thrilled and excited for all the students at Burr that they have the opportunity from an early age to learn another language from an excellent teacher.
I also am grateful that the Japanese language is appreciated at my son’s school and some other CPS schools in Chicago. At Burr, the students are exposed to Japan’s rich art, culinary and cultural history as well as language, and through these experiences, they are gaining tools to understand other cultures and truly become global citizens.
By Kimiyo Naka