Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Say "Sayonara" to the Japanese Language Program at Langston Hughes Elementary

Banner at the entrance to our school reads: "Welcome to Langston Hughes Elementary"
For the first time in fifteen years, the students at Langston Hughes Elementary School in Chicago did not participate in a Japanese World Language program. Hughes is a high-poverty school in the heart of the African-American Southside neighborhood of Roseland. This school has had a special relationship with the Japanese Consulate which provided a unique opportunity to study the language and culture of Japan, allowed students to participate in local Japan-related activities, and most strikingly, brought a group of students and staff from Langston Hughes to visit Japan each year free of charge to the participants.

Fourth graders created some Haiku as a "secret assignment"
 we completed on a day when no substitute was available
This year, I was hired to fill the Japanese Language Teaching position. I was to replace a sweet, older Japanese women who decided to retire after experiencing the chaos of trying to teach in a receiving school after Mayor Rahm Emanuel viciously closed 50 schools in 2013. When I hear stories of the fights, the anarchy in the hallways and lunchroom, and the tumult for the staff trying to survive resulting in a mass exodus the next year, I am not surprised to hear she chose to leave.

Due to the destabilization of the school closing and consolidation process, Langston Hughes saw a decline in their test scores and attendance rates which led to receiving the lowest possible rating, a Level 3. Our administration and Network reacted with an obsessive focus on improving test scores. They asked me to begin the year filling a special education position until they could hire a replacement. Our staff spent countless hours pouring over test score data, creating lesson plans aligned to a meticulous test-prep focused pacing guide, and shifted most after-school programs to either a remedial or test-prep focus instead of enrichment activities such as art or dance. If you were to walk into our classrooms, you would see kids doing often content-free, skills-based, tedious work. There are no projects, science experiments, or even the study of history. The fights continue and there is little joy in our building for students or staff alike.

And so, in the name of higher test scores, the Japanese Program has been discontinued. I never taught a day. At first, the hope was that it was only a temporary break, but it is looking more and more like the program is gone forever.

I had such high hopes...

A small portion of the Japanese curricular materials
and Read-Alouds
I had planned to build a culture-focused curriculum with language infused throughout that began with the students' lived experiences. I had hoped to infuse art, music, dance, math, science, history, and literature into the lessons. I had purchased a whole curriculum series from Australia, bought dozens of Japan-related Read-Alouds, and invested in numerous games, toys, and cultural objects. A friend connected me with a former Japanese elementary teacher who gave me hundreds of flash cards and lesson plan ideas. I bought numerous CDs of Japanese music and collected age-appropriate songs to facilitate
Flashcards, projects, and lesson plans have been
sitting unused all year
teaching the language. I ordered DVDs such as The Tale of Princess Kaguya and Happy Family Plan to have movie events. I had planned a Japanese website where we could share projects and videos. I reached out to current teachers of English in Japan to setup real time language exchanges. I started researching ideal spots for field trips such as the Mitsuwa Marketplace and Japanese Gardens. I planned to organize cultural events like "Multicultural Day", "Japan Day", or a "Japanese Sports Festival." I had begun to reach out to Japanese guests to share Taiko, Awa Odori Dance, Calligraphy, and Martial Arts.
A small fraction of games/materials 

I had ideas around examining critical issues in both countries such as race/racism/xenophobia, testing mania, and bullying. I was planning a cumulative video project with each class contributing a small section entitled "Our Community, Our City, Our Country" that we could bring on our annual trip abroad to share a more complete view of Chicago and The United States.  Students could take pride in their community as they shared who they are with our partners in Japan.

I was genuinely excited to teach this subject, to continue this truly special program, to bring kids-some of whom have never left their neighborhood-across the sea.

But, no. Thanks to the school closings, thanks to high-stakes testing, thanks to Common Core, all of that is shattered.  This program is lost forever to these children, only to be replaced by joyless, motivation-killing test prep.



  1. Wow, wow, wow. That's the most depressing thing I've read all day. I am so sorry to hear about stories like this. I sincerely hope you'll have the opportunity in the future to teach all the great ways you planned to. Sometimes it feels like education is going downhill everywhere across the country, but I think there are still some bright spots out there, some places with the right priorities.

  2. Language plays very major role in your daily life and is needed engaging in outside world. Great opportunities in UAE to learn foreign language including Arabic.

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  3. well it was fun while i was still their RIP 2007 years

  4. Such programs help enhance their language skills and improve them. Learn Japanese online with Yomuzoku, a course to help the language lovers.