This past November I attended the annual ACTFL Conference in Boston. As usual, there were tons of great sessions to choose from, and I had a tough time narrowing down the one I wanted to see. Many of the world language teachers, especially Japanese teachers know of Yo Azama, 2012 ACTFL Teacher of The Year. He often gives talks at the language conferences I attend, and is very popular among the Japanese teaching community. This year a session titled "Impact on the Global Citizen: Language Learning Through Social Justice" presented by Yoshiko Saito-Abbott, California State University, Monterey Bay and Yo Azama, North Salinas High School, caught my eye and I was glad I got there in time, because at some point it became standing room only! Yoshiko Saito-Abbott is also the current president of the American Association of Teachers of Japanese, or AATJ.
Their presentation focused on implementing social justice themes into our teaching, in any world language course, but their examples were specific to a Japanese classroom setting. This could be done in any class, but what is more fitting than a world language class, where our goal is to build more culturally aware global citizens? Aren't our classrooms the perfect safe spaces for change-making critical dialogue to take place? Are we doing our students a disservice by not creating spaces for uncomfortable conversations to take place? Who is truly uncomfortable, the teacher or the students?
Yo Azama's presentation broke down a unit which he taught in a Japanese 3 class, focusing on the theme of an "ideal city or town". His unit plan had students research various places in Japan, compare and contrast various living aspects such as crime rate, cost of living, etc., as well as discuss poverty issues and hunger in Japan and in his home town.
I really wanted to do something like this in my own classroom, so I took the plunge and created a unit based off of his unit ideas and vocabulary. I added some words of my own which I thought would pertain to the topic, but the basis of the unit theme, activities and discussions, stemmed from his presentation.
As a summative assessment right prior to my maternity leave, I had students create group presentations in which they researched various aspects of Japanese culture and compared them to American culture, such as homelessness, policing, soup kitchens, shelters, as well as ideal living situations and fairness vs. unfairness. I initially wanted them to create a PSA (public service announcement), but the groups each took their own spin on it, and each presentation was different, and I ended up liking the varying results.
Below is the project outline I had for my students:
I also had some pretty "high-level" vocabulary which guided our discussion throughout. Like I said before, I cannot take credit for any of this as I used Azama Sense's unit outline and vocabulary ideas as inspiration. If you take a look at the list below, you might at first think that these types of words are "too hard" or unreachable, but as with many aspects of language learning, if students are presented words, patterns, etc., in a meaningful context and are asked to apply it to their own lives, the idea of "hard" becomes irrelevant. I always thought difficulty was subjective and my students proved to me once again that if the topic is something they can get passionate about, then the words flow naturally out of their mouths.
Lastly, I want to say that I believe I was able to give my students the space to bring up topics that otherwise would not be discussed in their other classes, or maybe even in their home lives. Students were given a voice to speak about their experiences and their lives in a second language. How can it get better than that?
I am a high school Japanese teacher developing my own comprehensive and communicative Japanese program in Marysville, Ohio.