October 25, 2006 Edition

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This is me, 2,400 meters high at the fifth station of Mt. Fuji, the highest you can climb in October because conditions become too dangerous. The wind was blowing so hard that we could barely stand without holding on to the rail with all of our strength. The view of the Pacific Coast was amazing. I stood there looking out over the water thinking about the first time I saw Mt. Fuji in my fifth grade geography book. I never dreamed I would stand on the tallest mountain in Japan.

Wheeless studies Japanese
education and culture

We cooked our own meals at the table with a small heated pan during our dinner at the Ryokan. I did not like many of the foods but I tasted them. Our dinner consisted of 10 courses including squid, octopus, beef tongue, miso soup and other interesting things. Our group ate in the traditional style on the floor.

Charlotte Wheeless, fifth grade science teacher at Walnut Ridge recently participated in the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program, spending three weeks studying the Japanese education system and culture.

The Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program provides U.S. teachers with the opportunity to participate in three-week study visits to Japan and return home with a follow-on plan designed to introduce Japanese culture to American students.

The JFMF Program features a one-day orientation in San Francisco before the flight to Japan. Once in Japan teachers visit primary and secondary schools, teacher training colleges, cultural sites and industrial facilities.

Meetings with Japanese teachers and students and a homestay with a Japanese family are also key components of the program. Participants return home to share their new knowledge with students, colleagues and the local community, ensuring that more than just the individual participants profit from the experience.

The following are thought shared by Wheeless after she returned to Walnut Ridge:

After one night in San Francisco, our entire group of 200 teachers was off to Tokyo where we stayed in the New Otani Hotel, which was very luxurious. Then, on Oct. 8, we split up into groups of 20 to travel to various prefectures.

My group went to Shiogama in the Miyagi prefecture which is north of Tokyo. We went by bullet train, which the Japanese call Shinkansen. We were pretty stressed about getting on and off the train because when the doors open, you have one minute to get on or off the train and then the doors close. We had 20 people with luggage so it seemed impossible to us but the one minute was plenty of time to get on the train before it departed.

The respect given to teachers in Japan was a wonderful experience throughout the trip. The students, parents, Japanese teachers and just the society as a whole places teachers in a position of honor. That was a wonderful feeling.

When we arrived at the schools, students were quick to greet us with a friendly "hallo," "hallo!" When our visit was over, they would all say "mata" "mata," which means "see you," "see you!"

The students were very friendly and always wanted our autographs. They would hand us a piece of paper and say "sign please!" Most of the students would then take the paper and tape it into their notebooks to keep. They were so excited to see our names written in cursive.

The serving of lunch was done by the students in the classrooms. Each day, two to three students go to the kitchen to pick up the food. Those students then serve the lunch in the classroom. No one eats before the students say "Itadakamas," which is a show of humble gratitude to those who prepared the meal.

Students visit and laugh just like our students do in the cafeteria at lunchtime. After eating, everyone says "Gochisosama," which is tough to translate but is a way of saying that the meal was delicious and you are thankful for it. Then, students begin the cleanup.

The cooperation between the students at cleaning time was the most interesting thing I saw in the schools. All of the students worked hard to move the desks from every classroom and then clean the room from top to bottom, including washing the floors on their hands and knees using a bucket and rag.

They did this with a smile, even while cleaning the restrooms. This was just a normal part of their day and the respect for their school building was evident. This cleaning time was right after lunch in the elementary, junior high and high school buildings.

The collaboration with my peers at Walnut Ridge helped make this a wonderful learning experience for the students. Linda Pierce, social studies teacher, worked with me constantly to keep students informed about where I was in Japan.

She and the students used "Google Earth" to travel to the same places that I was traveling to in Japan. The students followed my travels on a map of the world and a map of Japan. (Both maps were posted in the hall outside Mrs. Pierce's room under a "Where in the World is Mrs. Wheeless?" banner.)

The art teacher, Rhonda Potter, also taught the fifth and sixth grade students origami and bamboo painting using Japanese brush techniques to correlate her classes to the unit on Japan.

The highlight of the trip was definitely the video conferences with my students.

I think it was a great lesson for them in technology for us to see one another and talk while over 6,000 miles apart. This was especially difficult with the 14 hour time difference. While it was 8:15 a.m. here, it was 10:15 p.m. in Japan.

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