"I'm not just telling the children a story," said Yashuko Nadayoshi-Walcott, the part-time Japanese language teacher at Oakland Terrace Elementary School in Silver Spring. "I am, in a real way, reliving my own experience."
Nadayoshi said her native Japanese culture adds an important dimension to her language instruction classes. Her enthusiastic third-grade students, who just completed a year in the class, agree.
"It's almost like being in Japan when we go in there," said student Ari Giberman, pointing to Nadayoshi's classroom. He added, with a whisper, "We bow to our teacher, and she bows to us."
"Language teaching equals cultural teaching," Nadayoshi said. "Learning the fascinating culture of Japan gives the children more tools to work with than just their memory."
"Sensei" -- teacher -- is one of the first Japanese words taught in Nadayoshi's class. The word carries a powerful meaning for the children and gives them their first lesson in Japanese culture.
Nadayoshi explained that, besides its simpler meaning, "sensei" conveys a deeper meaning of respect and reverence, vital elements in the Japanese educational system. She has tried to re-create this atmosphere of mutual respect in her American classroom, she said.
The Oakland Terrace third-graders are participating in a two-year pilot program, begun last September, to introduce foreign language instruction into Montgomery County elementary schools. The experimental program includes instruction in Spanish and Chinese at other county schools.
"This program will help the children's world view expand beyond western societies," said Principal Susan Marks. "I truly believe there will be a big payoff in future learning."
Exposure to a foreign language can be only positive for children because their motivation to learn and their retention levels are high, according to Myriam Met, foreign language coordinator for the Montgomery County school system. "We realize that career opportunities are expanding for those who know a second language," Met said. "Montgomery County is responding to what is a growing national phenomenon."
According to Marks, the program has enthusiastic support from parents. "I'd say we've had 99 percent positive feedback," she said. "This reinforcement from parents is vital to the program's success."
"The exposure is very positive," said Cindy Packard, whose daughter Katie is in the class. "I have always encouraged Katie to be aware of other cultures, and this program reinforces that.
"I'm only disappointed that the county has yet to make a long-term commitment to the program. It would be a shame to cut the program off next year, and waste all the enthusiasm that the kids have for learning a new language."
During the next school year, Montgomery County school officials will evaluate the pilot program. Then the school board will decide whether to continue it.
For now, Nadayoshi believes that the exposure to Japanese language and culture is a positive experience that her students will carry with them all their lives. "If there are byproducts of this program, like cultural appreciation, we will have been successful," she said. "I really believe that; it's why I work so hard."
Nadayoshi came to the United States as a student in 1963 and received a degree in industrial psychology three years later from San Francisco State College. A master's degree in counseling from New Mexico Highlands University followed in 1971.
"I was going in another direction with my own education," Nadayoshi said. "I had no intention of making teaching a career." But when her own children entered school in Frederick County, she became intrigued with the American school system.
Because the Oakland Terrace students receive Japanese instruction only three times a week, in 30 minute segments, Nadayoshi has chosen a teaching technique that took most of her students by surprise.
"Well, you know, she doesn't speak any English to us at all," said student Nicole Martin. "It was pretty weird at first, but now we're used to it, and she explains things very, very well."
"I knew I'd have a better chance at being successful if I spoke to the children only in Japanese," Nadayoshi said. She explained that this "immersion" method forces the children to hear the rhythm of the language and to concentrate better. "They must learn the language in order to communicate in the classroom," she said.
Nadayoshi believes the technique works well, but was concerned that she would be unable to form emotional attachments with her students without speaking English. "I had to decide to be close to them emotionally or professionally," she said.
"It was a difficult decision, because the emotional attachments are very important to me," she said.
In spite of her fears, Nadayoshi and her students are indeed devoted to one another. "The children will run up to me in the hallway and give me a big hug. It's so wonderful; they are so wonderful. I'm happy teaching them and they understand that," she said.
Nadayoshi continued, "Not speaking English can be frustrating at times. For instance, I cannot correct disruptive behavior effectively."
But, she added, "The children will help me; they'll discipline each other. In fact, they help each other a lot in my classroom. I think I see more peer cooperation than the other teachers do."