October, 2015: Breeze Issue #96

A Free Monthly E-Newsletter for Friends of Japan & Teachers of Japanese

2015 J-LEAP Report
by Tatsuya Nakahira

Sand Lake Elementary School
Anchorage, AK

Hello, my name is Tatsuya Nakahira. I am currently working as an Assistant Teacher here at Sand Lake Elementary School in Anchorage, Alaska, with my Lead Teacher, Mrs. Christy Mahugh. We are in charge of 54 1st grade students in the Japanese Immersion Program. At this time, I would like to introduce some things about my life in Alaska.

Anchorage is the biggest city in this state. It is not the capital city, but about 350,000 people live here. Anchorage is also a city surrounded by the great outdoors. In my opinion, most Japanese people think that Alaska is a place surrounded by only snow or ice year round. I also thought Alaska was such a place before I came here. I was not sure how long the summer season lasted and how I would cope. However, I enjoyed what remained of summer after I arrived and fall seems short as snow is already coming down in the mountains. There are many outdoor activities and very nice views to enjoy here. I hadn't seen such huge mountains and beautiful lakes until I came to Alaska. Of course, it's true that Alaska is a cold place, but my perception about Alaska has changed since I arrived here. In addition to the great outdoors, Alaska is known for its diverse population. According to recent data, Anchorage has some of the most culturally diverse schools in America.

Sand Lake Elementary School offers the Japanese Immersion Program. There are about 700 students in total (from K to 6th grade) in this school, and 55% of them (almost 400 students) are enrolled in the Japanese Immersion Program. They study Japanese language arts, social studies, and science, in Japanese and other subjects in English. Art, music, health, gym and library are taught by other teachers. The Japanese Immersion Program continues through Mears Junior High School and Dimond High School in Anchorage. It means students in the program can keep learning Japanese from K to 12th grade, or a total of 13 years if they so choose. There are many students who can speak Japanese well because of this program. The Anchorage School District has offered the Japanese Immersion Program as an option for over 26 years. The District also offers other immersion programs like Spanish, German, Russian, and Chinese. Even outside of school, I seem to find people who are interested in Japanese language and culture here in Anchorage.

In the immersion environment mentioned above, I am an assistant teacher in a 1st grade Japanese class. Our students have Japanese class, English class and classes with specialized teachers, such as music or art, everyday. Once they enter our Japanese classroom, they are not allowed to speak English at all, which they all understand. It was the same way by the end of kindergarten. They currently have two English teachers (one is a student teacher) a similar situation to my team-teaching. While they are at school, they split their time fifty-fifty speaking Japanese and English.

Japanese teachers and English teachers must have equal hours to teach in each language in an immersion program. We (Japanese teachers and English teachers) divide 54 students into 2 groups named Blue Team and Red Team, and we work with one team at a time in each language. When we finish teaching one team, we switch to the other team. To keep the teaching time the same and manage class activities, we switch students multiple times per day. I think that switching students is helpful for both teachers and students. The teachers are able to have a class with students of the same ability level and the students also improve their language skills and behavior faster. I feel that I have one big class instead of two small ones with four teachers (including me). Japanese teachers and English teachers share information about students with each other. Teaching with 4 teachers is very helpful in order to observe student growth and to check their comprehension. It is the first time I have taught Japanese in an immersion school in America, but it is very interesting and fascinating for me.

Finally, I would like to explain my responsibilities in our class here at Sand Lake Elementary School. Our students call my lead teacher "Mahugh-sensei" and they call me “Tatsuya-sensei”. At work, I need to make a lot of copies of handouts for them. Also, I'm sometimes in charge of morning-homeroom instead of Mahugh-sensei, and then I take attendance and determine who brought their lunch and who has school lunch. During the homeroom and Japanese class, I have to manage my 1st grade students' behavior and teach class rules, not just Japanese language or other content. While I'm working with them, I have to pay attention to many things. For example, some students suddenly ask me "May I drink water?" or "May I go to bathroom?" during class. Others ask, "Tatsuya-sensei, can you help me?" in Japanese at the same time. Once school begins, Mahugh-sensei and I are busy taking care of our students and teaching them at the same. Before I came to Alaska, I imagined only teaching Japanese vocabulary, grammar and structures, but didn’t realize I would spend so much time on classroom routines and management. Spending time with 1st grade students is so much fun everyday. I am with them from the beginning to the end of each day, so I feel that I have become not only a Japanese teacher but also a homeroom teacher.

It has been almost 2 months since my Japanese class began. It is very challenging for me to teach Japanese at an elementary school, but I feel fortunate to have many experiences at an immersion school in America. I have experienced many new and fun things through my work here. I would like to make class interesting and fun for my 1st grade students. I hope that they look forward to Japanese class and coming to school everyday. In order for instruction to be effective, productive, and inviting, I need to work hard and learn more about the immersion program and how young students learn. My goal is to become a good teacher who is trusted by my lead teacher, other co-teachers, 1st grade students, and their parents. To achieve these goals, I'm planning to do my best while also making good use of my leisure time in Alaska.