Tapping Into Students’ Curiosity About the World

Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids visited Milwood Magnet Middle School back in January of 2020 to learn more about the Japanese Culture Club. Below is the article we were going to run in the Spring issue of CIS Connections. While the pandemic disrupted the publication schedule for our newsletter (we’re in the middle of pulling the Fall issue together for you!), we still want to share this piece with you.

While much has changed with the pandemic, one thing that remains the same is that our 12,000+ kids love learning. This article is a good reminder of that.  

JAPANESE CULTURE CLUB

The school day had just ended. In one section of Milwood Magnet Middle School, CIS After School was getting underway. In another part of the school, students were wiping down tables in Mr. Patrick Woodley’s room. The social studies teacher had packed up papers and books and turned over his room to CIS.

Students prepare for their Sensai.

“We’re getting ready for our sensei,” explained Akyra Mabon. In Japanese culture, it’s a sign of respect to do this for your teacher. Sensai,” she clarified, “means ‘teacher’ in Japanese.”

“Konnichiwa, De’Asia,” announced sixth grader De’Asia English. “Konnichiwa is how you greet somebody in Japanese. It’s the afternoon greeting, so, I’m basically saying, “Hi, I’m De’Asia.” I like saying ‘Konnichiwa, De’Asia.’ I like how that sounds.” De’Asia also sees benefits to studying a different culture. “I just love that we’re learning how to speak Japanese in the club,” she said. “It’s great to learn new things. You’ll get further in life in ways you may not know. You could go somewhere or meet someone who is outside of the United States and if they speak a different language, like Japanese, you could speak with them!”

Left to right: WMU Soga Outreach Coordinator Michiko Yoshimoto and CIS Site Coordinator Missy Best during the early part of the 2019/2020 school year.

Since 2013, WMU’s Soga Japan Center (SJC) has worked closely and in a variety of ways with CIS to enrich students’ understanding of Japanese culture during and after school, and as part of CIS Think Summer. “I’m so lucky to have found CIS,” said Soga Japan Center Outreach Coordinator Michiko Yoshimoto. She first started as a CIS volunteer 10 years ago and it’s this support as both a volunteer and partner “that has helped me with connecting with schools and students.”

During the 2019/2020 school year, CIS Site Coordinator Missy Best connected twenty interested Milwood Magnet students to the Japanese Culture Club. During the club, Michiko has engaged them in a variety of activities, such as calligraphy, language, origami, learning to sing Japanese pop songs, ordering food off of a Japanese menu, and discussing Japanese society and culture.

When Michiko steps into Mr. Woodley’s classroom, she was accompanied by several club members who had greeted her at the school’s entrance. Even after a full day of learning, it was clear these sixth and seventh graders were eager to dig in and learn Japanese culture. “The students really take to Japanese language and culture when given the chance,” said Missy. “…Michiko has a wonderful way of tapping into students’ natural curiosity about the world,” On this particular Wednesday, Missy had arranged for two new students to check out the Japanese Culture Club to see if it might be a good fit for them. They picked up quickly, singing along and asking questions like, “Are names pronounced the same in Japanese as they are in English?” [The answer: not in all cases. For instance, explained Michiko, if you have an “R” in your name, it will be changed to an “S” sound in Japanese.]

What did the student visitors think by the end of the session? “It was kind of weird at first,” said one, “but then I really started having a good time. I liked how we were laughing and that I was already started to learn Japanese.” “It was good, fun, and a new experience,” said the other.

Both agreed they would be coming back.

[If you missed last week’s post, you’ll want to check out Rashon’s interview here with Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids. As one of the 2019/2020 Japanese Culture Club members, he’s still learning and growing even though he and his classmates are currently not in the school building.]

Rashon: Learning and Letting it Flow

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Rashon Keys, one of 20 Milwood Magnet Middle School students who had been part of the Japanese Culture Club during the 2019/2020 school year. Thanks to CIS longstanding partner Western Michigan University Soga Japan Center, students interested in exploring Japanese culture had the opportunity to stay after school one day a week to learn Japanese language, songs, calligraphy, origami, and more. CIS Site Coordinator Missy Best connected the students with WMU Soga Outreach Coordinator Michiko Yoshimoto who facilitated the Japanese Culture Club.

When Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids popped in to do this quiz, the pandemic was not yet upon us and singing was still safe to do. On this particular day, Michiko was introducing Rashon and his club mates to the Japanese lyrics of a popular Anime song, “My Hero Academia.”

“This is very difficult,” she told them as she projected a YouTube video on the whiteboard. “We will practice this for several weeks.” She started singing: I keep my ideals alive when destiny calls!

Rashon, picking up the Japanese lyrics quickly, started singing and swaying to the upbeat music.

“Oh, this song is hard. I can barely sing it!” Michiko said, on their third practice.

“You’ve got to let it flow,” encouraged Rashon. “Just let it flow!”

In this spirit of reciprocity, the students and their sensei (teacher in Japanese), ran through the song several more times, their voices and confidence flowing.

Alright, Rashon: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

What was it that interested you in becoming part of the Japanese Culture Club and what have you come to appreciate most about being part of this club?

I like learning, so I’d say I probably like everything. Yes, everything!

I especially like the people. They are all pretty cool. [Rashon waved his hand towards CIS Site Coordinator Missy Best, WMU Soga Outreach Coordinator Michiko Yoshimoto, and then the entire class.] Everybody here is cool. We’re learning new things here and I like to do that. That’s why I decided I should go to the Japanese Culture Club in the first place.

You’ll have the Kalamazoo Promise when you graduate high school. Though it’s a ways off, what are your thoughts as to plans after high school? 

I’m going to go to college and play football. And when I retire—when I’m 25, though I might be 28—then I will go into the military so I can provide for my family in the future.

It might take a long time, though. I might fail in bootcamp. But I can go back three times.

What is a question you’ve asked lately?

Will we be speaking Japanese by the end of this class?

What are you currently reading?

Dragon Ball Z [based on the Japanese anime television series produced by Toei Animation].

What’s one of your favorite subjects in school?

English/Language Arts. I have Ms. [Carol] Kimbrough. She’s one of my favorite teachers. She’s my sixth hour English/Language Arts teacher…She’s not just demanding to be demanding, you know? She’s demanding in a fun way, in a way that helps you learn.

What is your favorite word right now?

Rashon practices writing Japanese words.

In Japanese or English?

Both. 

In Japan, it’s the word “above” which is ue.

In English, it’s “Hey, Mom!” I’m always saying that. “Hey, Mom! Let’s get something to eat.” “Hey, Mom! Let’s hang out.” “Hey, Mom!”

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

My mom, my dad, and everybody else that, like them, supports me.

Thank you, Rashon, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.

[Next week’s post will provide a glimpse into the 2019/2020 Japanese Culture Club. Also, be on the lookout for our CIS Connections newsletter as you will get a taste of some of the virtual clubs that students will have the opportunity to take advantage of this school year.]