Studying all things Japanese

Mayfield Woods Middle offers program that immerses kids in culture

July 28, 2004|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A fascination with Japanese culture, driven by the popularity of imported cartoons, motivated a group of middle-schoolers to spend part of their summer tackling a very difficult language.

During the recent summer foreign language exploration program at Mayfield Woods Middle School, the pupils were "totally immersed in the culture. It was a real hit with the students," said Edna Turner, summer school principal.

From June 28 to July 12, about 20 children spent three hours a day learning Japanese as part of the county's Comprehensive Middle Summer School program. A Spanish program was held July 13 to 23.

During the Japanese class, the children studied writing systems, watched movies and TV shows the Japanese enjoy for entertainment and learned about different foods. They also shared books, artifacts and clothing related to the Japanese culture.

The fascination with all things Japanese appears to be a growing phenomenon as more and more preteens and teenagers become glued to the TV for their daily doses of Toonami, a collection of the Japanese action cartoons called anime, that airs on the cable channel Cartoon Network. Those shows include the popular Pokemon, Dragonball and Dragonball Z.

"Ever since I was 5, I was watching [Toonami]," said Erin Benson, 14, whose Japanese name "Youko," means "demon."

The moniker, she explained, stuck with her as classmates took note of her passion for the Japanese culture.

Mark Anthony-Overbey said he, too, is a fan of Japanese animated cartoons, as well as manga, the Japanese style of drawing used in comics. He made up his Japanese name, "Makai," which doesn't have a meaning, he said.

Mark, 11, and Erin, proudly displayed their manga artwork after being asked to name something that has kept them interested in the foreign culture.

As for the language class, the pupils had nothing but praise for their teacher, Shavon McCown, a foreign language teacher at Long Reach High School during the school year.

"It's been fun learning how to write Japanese words and numbers in Romaji, which is writing their words using our alphabet," said Anthony.

Erin added, "Ms. Shavon has been one of the best teachers I've ever had."

McCown had mutual feelings for her pupils.

"They really have been doing wonderfully," she said. "Through listening, reading, writing and speaking, I wanted to give them an appreciation of the [Japanese culture]."

Deborah Espitia, coordinator of foreign languages and English for Speakers of Other Languages for the county schools, said the program was developed based on student interest.

"We had a number of students who wrote to me to say that they would like to explore Japanese," she said. "They are really interested in the animation and want to learn more about the culture."

Because the program was so popular, Espitia said it likely will be offered next summer.

"We'd most definitely like to do it again," she said.

Presently, middle schoolers have options to study Spanish or French in the seventh and eighth grades, said Espitia.

But, she added, some middle school principals have foreign language exploratory programs that allow pupils to study Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Japanese and German.

Those schools are Burleigh Manor, Patuxent Valley, Cradlerock, Clarksville and Elkridge Landing middle schools.

"The principals in the schools took the initiative to get the programs into their related-arts rotations," said Espitia.

There are also talks with some PTA groups to offer foreign language classes at the elementary level during after-school programs, she added.

Supporters of offering foreign languages earlier in students' academic careers say it would go a long way in helping language comprehension.

"It's always better for kids to start learning a foreign language at an earlier age," said McCown.

Added Erin, "It would be a good idea to offer it in the sixth grade, but most children won't learn it until much later."

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