Sister City students prepare for spring visit to Hood River with English immersion program

Say hello: Exchange group of 22 Tsuruta junior high school students will be in Hood River March 14-22

(Editor’s note: Hood River native Lisa Kawachi is currently serving as the Hood River-Tsuruta sister city Coordinator of International Relations. She lives and works in Tsuruta, Japan, as a facilitator of the long-running sister city program and an English teacher to the townspeople.)

The classroom erupts with the sound of laughter as we watch James playfully go after Shunnosuke for flipping him off with his middle finger.

The two are demonstrating how important nonverbal communication is, and how powerful gestures can be. In this example, students are learning the difference the same gesture can have between two different cultures. In Japan, the use of your middle finger to point at or count something is common, whereas in America the meaning of the same gesture can be quite powerful, and negative.

The 26 of us are in a classroom at the local Tsuruta Community Center on day two of the annual English Crash Course. James Kelly is an assistant language teacher at Tsuruta High School and Shunnosuke Kimura is one of the 22 junior high school students who will be visiting Hood River this week for the 30th Annual Tsuruta Junior High School Goodwill Tour.

This crash course is required for all Tsuruta Junior High School students who visit Hood River. The course, held annually, usually lasts about a week and the students are immersed into situational English so they can practice scenarios they might encounter during their time in Hood River.

There are four native speakers of English to help them through this, all four of whom live and work in Tsuruta. Kelly, Jamie Iwashita (the Tsuruta Junior High School language teacher), Amy Tappenden (the JET coordinator for international relations and me (the Hood River CIR).

There is much diversity amongst the teachers. Three of us are from the United States (South Carolina, Hawaii and Oregon) while Amy is from New Zealand. All of us are different ages, coming from different backgrounds, having different experiences to share with the students and the people of Tsuruta.

As an introduction, on the first day of the course I gave a PowerPoint presentation covering some of the basics of Hood River. I talked about and showed them photos of the schools, agriculture, popular places, foods they might eat, animals and recreation activities. Hopefully this presentation got them excited about visiting Hood River and the students will be able to seek out and recognize some of the things I covered during their trip. It also allowed them to see some of the visual differences between Hood River and Tsuruta.

Throughout the course the students practice giving self-introductions while sharing photos of their families, pets, hobbies and favorite places. Many times they are reluctant to share these pictures with others. We try and give the students many opportunities to practice their self-introductions in hopes that when they meet their host families they will feel more comfortable sharing this information with them and not get as flustered when they are asked follow-up questions.

Most Japanese junior high school students have little difficulty writing basic English, but when the time comes to listen to or speak this same English, they often panic. They know how to convey themselves in their minds, but freeze up when forced to vocalize and share their thoughts aloud. Our ultimate goal in this course is to make them feel more at ease with foreigners and more confident in their English abilities in all areas.

They learn a lot of useful and practical information during this course, but we try to have them learn through games and interactive activities. There is very little lecture time as more time is spent having the students interact with the teachers and each other.

Today we covered gestures and how to convey medical issues. If you had stumbled into the classroom a mere 20 minutes prior to Kelly chasing Kimura around the room, you would have seen the students mummified in toilet paper as one partner acts as the patient and tells what ails them while partner, playing doctor, bandages up their ailment with toilet paper to cure them.

“Doctor, my right arm hurts!” says one of them. The arm is then bandaged with toilet paper. “Doctor, I have a stomachache!” A bandage is applied to the midsection of that patient. Lastly, “Doctor, I have a toothache!” This ailment brings the game to a close as toilet paper is wrapped around the student’s head and mouth which prevents them from speaking any more. It is a fun activity and in the end the students seem more at ease.

The crash course includes lessons in currency to show the students American money, which they will practice counting and using to buy items in a mock store. It is good hands-on practice for them and an opportunity to familiarize themselves with using American bills and coinage.

The nickel and dime always bring some confusion for their size and value. Many of the students have a hard time remembering that even though the nickel coin is larger in size, it is worth less than a dime.

We will also have the students practice ordering food at various types of restaurants and go through the process of paying for the food that they order. Shopping and ordering food don’t appear to be really stressful situations at first, but if you have ever tried to do either in a foreign language with different currencies and an entirely new measurement system then you know how stressful and nerve-wracking it can be.

The crash course concludes with a dinner party called the Manner Party. Originally created to teach the kids American mannerisms and how to use western utensils, the manner party has evolved and now also introduces the students to foreign cuisine. Last year our main course was chili and pasta. This year we are having tacos.

The students will spend the afternoon chopping, cooking and preparing the meal for themselves and their parents. Around 50 people will be in attendance and everything except for beverages and the ice cream cups for dessert will be prepared by the students. It will be an evening of celebration and fun as we wish them a safe and fun trip to Hood River. Hopefully the course has made them more confident and they feel ready for their journey.

If you happen to see one of the students or the adults that are accompanying them during their visit to Hood River this week, please try and talk with them. They are extremely interested in learning about another culture and are hoping to practice their English, even if they look like they want to find a place to hide when you approach them. Don’t be fooled. Although they might seem shy and reserved, there is a lot of energy, enthusiasm and even mischievousness lurking beneath those Japanese school uniforms — just ask Shunnosuke.

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