Japan, U.S. build cultural bridges at Atholton High 12 exchange students visit from sister school in prefecture near Tokyo

March 27, 1997|By Dilshad D. Husain | Dilshad D. Husain,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Ai Okazaki extended her arms away from her body to indicate the large stomach of a sumo wrestler, then she wrinkled her face. The students in Candee Brodsky's Spanish class at Atholton High School in Howard County burst into laughter, along with Ai and her two Japanese friends.

"I guess it's obvious," Brodsky said above the noise. "Not all Japanese girls like sumo wrestlers."

Seventeen-year-old Ai is among 12 Japanese students who visited Atholton High in west Columbia last week as part of a sister-school student exchange program between Atholton and Kamakura High School in Japan. Many Howard County schools sponsor and send exchange students, but Atholton is the only school in Howard County with an exclusive exchange program with a foreign school.

Maryland and the Kanagawa prefecture south of Tokyo began a partnership program 15 years ago. Later, each selected nine high schools for a partnership program. The schools were matched according to academic standings, said Ryozo Komatsuda, an English teacher with the Japanese delegation.

Partners for 7 years

That's how Atholton and Kamakura High got to be partners seven years ago. Students from the two schools have been alternating visits, taking trips every other year. Kamakura students have come to Atholton twice, and Atholton students have gone to Kamakura once.

Linda Shaw, the Atholton media center secretary and coordinator of this delegation's visit, said both Americans and Japanese benefit from the exchange. "They learn cultural awareness of what kids are doing everyday in school," she said.

Shaw said the schools plan to set up Internet communication within the next couple of months. "This way, we'll be able to be in contact constantly instead of just visiting each other every other year," she said.

Roger Plunkett, principal of Atholton, said the school is privileged to be involved in such a program. "When two schools connect with each other, there's a lot to learn."

Ethnic diversity

He said the ethnic diversity of Atholton always surprises Japanese students, as well as the interaction between the principal and students.

"I don't think principals in Japan walk the halls," he said.

Added Ai: "It's good we meet like this, because we don't have always the correct idea about each other."

The Japanese students and their three teachers lived with host families from Atholton High last week. The schedule was busy, including tours of the White House and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington; the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore; and state General Assembly and Annapolis -- as well as local jaunts to places such as The Mall in Columbia.

Their time here was so packed that the students had difficulty remembering everything they did.

"It's all kind of mixed up in my head," said Ai. "Everything was exciting, and everyone was nice. I really liked the shopping."

Eiji Sakata, the only male member of the Japanese entourage, agreed: "There's much to see here, too little time. And of course, everyone liked the shopping. Very, very cheap things in America."

About three of the students' days in the area were spent at Atholton, and during that time they made trips to Pointers Run Elementary School and Clarksville Middle School for presentations. Though their levels of fluency varied, the students always communicated in English.

At Clarksville Middle School, the students demonstrated Japanese calligraphy. Ai wrote her name on the board and explained that it is Japanese for "love." Hiroko, 17, and Satoko, 16, mixed traditional ink and laid out thin rice paper for the calligraphy. With careful but sweeping brush strokes, Ai skillfully wrote her name. She said all Japanese students learn calligraphy in elementary school.

But the sixth-graders seemed more interested in the toys. The Japanese students showed the class how to blow up paper balloons, then tossed them into the crowd. Pandemonium broke loose.

Visitors surprised

At one point, the Japanese students asked how many classes the sixth-graders have. When the local youngsters said eight, the foreign students were stunned.

Though Japanese schools are reputed to be some of the toughest anywhere, Eiji, 16, said schools are much more strict in America. "We have no homework," he said. "Students here -- homework every day! But there is much more class choice here."

Kamakura High School's location -- a stone's throw from the Pacific Ocean -- provided another experience that builds bridges between cultures.

Cara Ramsey, a 17-year-old Atholton junior in Brodsky's class, asked the girls if Kamakura students ever skipped school.

Toshiko Saito, an English teacher from Kamakura, looked at the Japanese girls and said, "Sometimes they skip to go sit on the beach.

"Not a good thing, but when the weather is nice, they can't help it."

Pub Date: 3/27/97

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