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MARCH 2004

International Perspectives:
From Mt. Fuji to Kawasaki,
US Educators Learn in Japan
by Sharon Kaplan, Ed.D.

During a break in my morning workshop I noticed many of the participants were gathered in front of a large picture window with their cell phones in hand. As I approached, I realized they were not using their cell phones to talk, but were taking pictures of a breath-taking sight. Mt. Fuji, some 60 miles away, was radiating against a bright blue sky. In Japan, it is considered a sign of good luck just to catch a glimpse of this graceful mountain.

This January I participated in a program sponsored and funded by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of the Japanese government. The trip was arranged in collaboration with the Japanese Association of School Counseling and Guidance. Dr. Keiko Honda, Assistant Professor at Tamagawa University, and a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University, planned the program. After visiting different school programs in the New York metropolitan area in March 2001 and 2002, Dr. Honda decided to invite American educators to Japan as part of an international exchange program. Her initial grant proposal was accepted and teachers, social workers, counselors, psychologists, and probation officers from the United States visited Japan. Based on the success of that program, Dr. Honda's grant was approved for additional funding for January 2004.

This year's program drew educators and clinicians from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts. An overview of the Japanese educational system, visitations to different school programs and facilities, and an opportunity to exchange information with Japanese colleagues was arranged. A two-day workshop, held at the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center in Tokyo, offered sessions on comprehensive high schools, school counseling, prevention education and special education. An introductory lecture on the Japanese educational system, by Mr. Takahiko Sugiyama the Director of the Sports and Youth Bureau from the Ministry of Education, was a sobering experience. He presented data on nation-wide problems of school refusal, unemployment and a rise in anti-social behaviors. Mr. Sugiyama discussed the efforts of the Japanese government, such as increasing school-based counselors, career consultants, job placement services, and work-study programs as a means to address these issues.

Our trip to an elementary and junior high school in Kawasaki, a suburb of Tokyo, highlighted that school districts' efforts to bring students with special needs into the mainstream of education. In addition to a self-contained classroom and a resource room, consultation services to classroom teachers were provided. Traveling on to a high school in Gifu City, the ability of the students to plan and choose their own courses based on their talents, interests and career aspirations was exemplary.

In the private sector, an after-school YMCA program in Tokyo, supervised by Dr. Akiko Kaizu, was an outstanding example of accommodating the learning and behavioral needs of children with disabilities. Observing via a video monitor, the students were animated and engaged. Students received one-on-one instruction in academic areas and participated in cooperative learning activities. The YMCA "Liby" program for school refusal was another exceptional example of a unique environment which permitted alienated, disenfranchised students the opportunity to be educated in a nurturing facility.

Classroom teachers in Japan, like the United States, are faced with meeting the needs of students with diverse academic skills and behaviors.  As a learning disabilities teacher-consultant, my workshop presented strategies and curriculum adaptations that could be used in the general education classroom to accommodate learning differences. These workshops were co-facilitated by Mrs. Shizuko Kame Barnes, a bilingual psychologist, practicing in New York City. During the question and answer session, concerns of the participants were similar to those raised by teachers in the United States. Issues regarding the reluctance of parents to identify their child as having special needs, the extensive time and support required by teachers to meet the needs of students with learning differences in general education classrooms, and insufficient funding and resources were discussed.

Through the generosity of the Japanese Ministry of Education and World Youth Visit Exchange Association (WYVEA) I have cherished memories of the time spent with my "homestay" family, wandering small streets in Tokyo and Kyoto, visiting national treasures, learning traditional dances, riding the subways and eating delicious food! I also made many new friends. As Francisco Alberran, social worker from the Greenwich Public School reported, "At each school our team was provided with the utmost warmth and gracious welcome. Having the opportunity to visit these schools, observe the classrooms and talk with staff and students provided the ideal context and rationale to continue our efforts in forming a partnership to address the needs of all students."#

Sharon Kaplan, Ed.D is a Learning Disabilities Teacher-Consultant, Tenafly Public Schools




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