A picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it comes to breaking down cultural stereotypes and crossing linguistic barriers. That’s the thinking behind a new cross-cultural curriculum for Japanese schoolchildren developed jointly by EDC and Iwate University.
“We’re using picture books to promote cross-cultural understanding and help Japanese students learn more about America,” says project director Alejandra Bonifaz. “We’ve chosen books that convey the richness and variety of life in this country and those that showcase different elements of American culture, including ethnic groups, holidays, and famous people. We also want to demonstrate the geographic variety of the United States—to demonstrate that America is more than the big cities like New York or San Francisco.”
The project responds to an initiative from Japan’s Ministry of Education which seeks to make its students more culturally aware. “The Japanese believe that for their country to remain competitive, they need their next generation to be more creative, more innovative, more analytical, and more adept in dealing with people from different cultures,” says EDC’s curriculum writer, Yvette Tan.
The EDC team has carefully selected 15 American picture books as the basis for lessons with students in grades 1-3. The list of titles was generated after extensively researching hundreds of books on multicultural topics. The ones chosen are culturally sensitive, present positive images of various cultural and racial groups, have captivating images, age-appropriate words, and relate to topics and subjects currently being taught in Japanese classrooms. They have little text as the students don’t speak English and the teachers are unlikely to as well. Instead teachers will tell the story through the pictures—though they can also draw on plot summaries written in English and Japanese by project staff. Each of the selected titles has accompanying lessons that address themes like diversity and tolerance, and engage students in interactive activities, such as group reading, role playing, and small-group projects.
To ensure that the materials mesh with the realities of Japanese classrooms, EDC staff worked closely with the team from Iwate University’s Faculty of Education led by Professor Tomoko Yamazaki. “They gave us ongoing feedback on the types of activities that were possible for teachers and which students will be receptive to. They also gave us insight on student interests, such as dramas, sentimental stories, and tales that involve animal characters,” says Bonifaz.
“This is the first time that Iwate University is collaborating with a U.S. nonprofit organization,” says Tan. “We believe that this unique partnership is one of the project’s biggest strengths and we all look forward to the interesting things we will learn along the way.” The university is recruiting 25 teachers to participate in the training and pilot test of the lessons. Working with EDC, Iwate will design and deliver a face-to-face teacher training course grounded in best practices on teacher education and cross-cultural instruction. At least 12 out of the 25 teachers will then pilot test sample activities in their classrooms during the first term of the Japanese school year. After the pilot test, staff will conduct a one day follow up and concluding session, followed by a final evaluation of the curriculum and teacher training.
The project has presented the team with a number of challenges—everything from keeping in touch across different time zones to negotiating cultural differences between U.S. and Japanese organizations. But the most exciting challenges for the EDC project staff, all of whom are foreign born, was teaching about America: “We are a group of foreigners so we found ourselves going back to our own biases and preconceptions about America,” says EDC’s technical expert, Prerna Sood. “The American presence abroad is sometimes perceived in a negative way. Yet the reality of American culture is open and diverse. We felt it was important to balance that political image.”
Originally published on February 1, 2007