The following is an excerpt from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This part of the series, the third of a four-week subseries, focuses on teaching English at the primary school level.
( Yomiuri Shimbun Nov.26)
OSAKA–Students at Mikanodai Primary School in Kawachi-Nagano, Osaka Prefecture, occasionally enjoy speaking English to their counterparts in Australia–without ever traveling out of the city. The public school takes full advantage of an Internet teleconference system as part of its English lessons.
On an early autumn day, for example, about 40 fifth graders gathered in front of a television screen that was displaying a live image of a girl at Wodonga West Primary School in Victoria, Australia.
“Konnichiwa. Watashi no namae wa Anii desu. Tempura o tabemasu (Hello. My name is Annie. I enjoy eating tempura),” said the girl, who received a round of applause from the other side of the equator.
During the half-hour session, Mikanodai and Wodonga West students spoke to each other in English and Japanese. They introduced themselves and had a question-and-answer session, while also singing together and playing a paper-rock-scissors game.
Mikanodai holds joint language classes with its Australian counterparts several times a year, in addition to similar exchange sessions with other countries. The language program was initiated by Shoji Umeda, 56, one of the teachers at the school.
It was in 1999 that Umeda first attempted an international exchange via the Internet while working at another primary school. He began by having his students send e-mails to schools he found via Web sites for finding penpals. However, he gave up such exchanges two years later after finding that his students often received no responses from overseas.
Then Umeda changed his focus, bringing his students and their counterparts overseas in front of television screens to enjoy live communication. He has found overseas primary schools for this purpose through Web sites for schoolteachers.
Umeda says that helping his students improve their English skills is not the prime aim of arranging the joint language classes with Australian primary schools.
“Much more than that, we aim at giving our students opportunities to look outside Japan,” the teacher said. “Through direct communication with their foreign counterparts, they can feel that they are connected to the world, thus becoming interested in [people and places] overseas.”
The joint language classes are also beneficial for students at Wodonga West Primary School, said Mariko Sato, 29, who works at the school.
“My students don’t have chances to speak Japanese or meet Japanese outside the school,” she said. “Therefore, they’re always delighted to attend the classes. They become so excited that it’s difficult for me to calm them down.”
The Kawachi-Nagano municipal government launched an Educational Media Center next door to Mikanodai Primary School in 2002. The center was later moved onto the campus.
Thanks to the center, not only Mikanodai, but also the city’s 13 other primary schools have begun international exchanges via the Internet with their counterparts in various parts of the world, such as Britain, China, South Korea and the United States, in addition to Australia. Umeda, who also serves as the administrator of the center, oversees lending the necessary equipment to the city’s schools and coordinates classes between them and their overseas counterparts.
In promoting international exchanges via the Internet, Umeda is always bothered by having to consider time differences with Japan. For his students to enjoy live interaction with children overseas, Australia and New Zealand are among the few choices available in terms of English-speaking countries with no major time differences.
Umeda has also been concerned that the information and communication technology are still not so widely used in Japanese classrooms. In this respect, the “School New Deal” program–which was included in the supplementary budget for the 2009 fiscal year that was passed by the Diet in May–was expected to give a boost because the program covered funding for equipping public schools with electronic blackboards. However, after Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took office in September, his administration decided to suspend part of the program.
On top of that, many teachers still hesitate to take advantage of such technology.
“It was in my mid-40s when I began using a computer,” Umeda said. “If teachers try to find fun ways to use computers in their teaching, I’m sure that students can enjoy learning English.”