Article by Julie E. Greene for herald-mail.com, April 28, 2013:
Ayako Shiga knows how difficult it can be to learn a foreign language.
When she was growing up in Tokyo, she failed her first semester of English in middle school.
During a break that semester, she went to visit her father in Australia and couldn’t answer the waiter when he asked her, in English, how old she was, because she didn’t understand the question.
Shiga said that last experience motivated her to learn English and apply to be a high school exchange student in America.
Today, she puts to work her own experiences learning a difficult foreign language by helping Boonsboro High School students learn Japanese. Shiga — Washington County Public Schools’ only Japanese language teacher — was named the school system’s 2013-14 Teacher of the Year on April 17.
The award is sponsored by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
“When I was in high school and when I came here as an exchange student, I wasn’t a successful learner, I felt. I felt I could have done better,” Shiga said.
As a result, Shiga said, she thought there were ways she could make learning easier for others.
“And that’s when I decided to become a language teacher,” said Shiga, 35, who lives in Chambersburg, Pa.
She began her study of applied linguistics at the University of Hawaii, then earned a master’s degree, for teaching English as a second language, from Hawaii Pacific University.
After teaching in Hawaii for more than a year, she moved to the Tri-State area to be closer to her boyfriend — now her fiance — and got a job with Washington County Public Schools in 2004 teaching English to students for whom English was a second language.
In 2005, Shiga’s supervisor asked her if she would be interested in starting a Japanese language program for the school system.
Shiga said she’d always wanted to teach Japanese, though it was hard work establishing the program. She worked on the curriculum and assessments, and advocated for the program while continuing to teach English. She also spent three summers studying at Columbia University to earn a second master’s degree, this one in Japanese pedagogy.
During the Japanese language program’s first year, in 2006-07, Shiga had about 30 students at Boonsboro High.
Now, she teaches Japanese to about 100 students a year.
That is approximately 10 percent of the students in Maryland public schools who are studying Japanese, according to a Maryland State Department of Education world language enrollment report.
“Japanese is definitely a difficult language to learn,” Shiga said. The U.S. Department of Defense classified Japanese, along with languages such as Arabic and Chinese, as category IV languages, the most difficult to learn, she said.
“I’m excited to see how many students are learning Japanese, despite the challenge,” said Shiga, who is to begin teaching an advanced placement Japanese class in the next school year.
Her own classroom
It wasn’t until last school year that Shiga got her own classroom — a former computer lab — to teach Japanese, she said. Before that, she took her materials around on a cart at Boonsboro High.
She has adorned the room with decorative curtains from Japan, calligraphy and various posters and signs with Japanese characters, and letters from students in the school’s sister-school in Japan.
Community members have donated to the class items, including pictures from stays in Japan, Shiga said.
Last week, the classroom held various congratulatory items, including a banner from Annie Anders’ third-grade magnet class at Boonsboro Elementary Magnet School for Global Awareness and World Languages.
Shiga and her students work with students at Boonsboro Middle and Boonsboro-area elementary schools. They share information about the Japanese language and culture at after-school events and meet with younger students who are studying Japan.
Earlier this month, Anders took her students to Shiga’s classroom to deliver the banner after Shiga was nominated for teacher of the year, Anders said.
During that visit, Anders’ students visited stations the high school students had set up so they could teach the younger students about different aspects of Japanese culture, Anders said.
“She’s brought the Japanese culture to life, really. … Every time I go there, she tells me a story about her life,” Anders said.
“My students want to take Japanese,” Anders said. “It’s a great way to goal-set for their future.”
‘Easy to learn’
During a visit last week to Shiga’s Japanese I class, the students appeared to be enjoying different activities she set up so they could review what they had learned.
“She reviews a lot. She doesn’t just teach us something and then move on,” said Katy McCarthy, 15.
Groups of students played a board game Shiga adapted so students could have fun while conjugating Japanese verbs. Their classmates would let them know whether they got it right.
“We do a lot of activities … We don’t even realize we’re learning it because it’s just activities,” said Allyson Sikes, 14.
Shiga said she focuses on what her students can do with the language, rather than on just having them conjugate verbs or translate English into Japanese.
After playing the game, the students reviewed their homework.
Shiga had given them drawings for which they were to write a description in Japanese characters. Students took turns writing their answers on the white board in the front of the class. Then their classmates pointed out which answers were correct and which needed tweaking.
Later, Shiga used an iPad and her finger to draw Japanese characters. Her drawings appeared on the screen in front of the class for students to interpret.
“She makes it easy to learn because she’s such a great teacher,” said freshman Brent Leone, 14.
Brent said Shiga talks to students about continuing their education and about how learning Japanese and getting into the Japanese Honor Society can help them earn scholarships.
Shiga’s class isn’t just about learning the language or even the culture of Japan.
In little and big ways, Shiga encourages her students to explore the world outside of Boonsboro or southern Washington County.
Japanese IV students compete almost annually in the spring National Japan Bowl, an academic competition that tests their knowledge of Japanese language and culture. The contest is organized by the Japan-America Society in conjunction with the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Last year, instead of participating in the academic competition, the students built a replica of a nonreligious portable shrine, which they carried in the National Cherry Blossom Festival parade in Washington, D.C.
“While she was a tough teacher, she always encouraged us to look into the cultural side” of Japan, said Boonsboro High graduate Caitlin Wolfe, who spent a semester in Tokyo in 2010 for her international studies major at Washington College.
Shiga saw Wolfe while both were in Japan that summer.
“Such a proud moment to see the former student being able to function and do well in the country,” Shiga said.
Wolfe said Shiga taught her to be thorough in her research and to not be afraid to try to say something in Japanese for fear of making a mistake, because “that’s how you learn.”
Shiga also arranged a trip to Japan, which five students took in 2012.
Her Japanese IV students were planning to take the trip in 2011, but the great earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 delayed the trip. The students donated the money they raised for the trip to earthquake relief efforts in Japan.
Shiga spoke to Japanese government officials during the summer of 2011, letting them know students in Western Maryland were studying Japanese language and culture. The governor of Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, visited the local high school that fall.
He thanked the students for their earthquake relief donation and formalized a “sister school” arrangement with a high school in his prefecture.
Shiga said she is planning another student trip to Japan in 2014.
Shiga will have an assistant teacher from Japan for the next two school years after securing a $100,000 grant from the Japan Foundation, which has an office in California, and the Laurasian Institution, which has an office in Seattle.
In August, students from the Iwate Prefecture will visit Boonsboro High, Shiga said. Iwate was one of the areas most devastated by the 2011 earthquake, she said.
To welcome the students, Shiga’s students have been practicing singing “Hana wa Saku,” a song that has been used to commemorate the anniversaries of the earthquake.
Boonsboro High Principal Peggy Pugh said Shiga is a phenomenal teacher who has provided some students who haven’t even traveled to Baltimore or Washington, D.C., with the opportunity to learn about Japanese culture.
“For them to be able to study about and experience a whole (other) culture that far away is intriguing to the students. It’s also important to broaden their experiences outside of the Boonsboro area,” Pugh said.