Teachers’ trip will benefit students

KELLY WOHLGAMUTH, a fifth-grade teacher at Wilson Vance Intermediate School, plays with children at a school in Japan. Wohlgamuth was among a group of educators who visited Japan this summer through a Fulbright Scholarship program. The goal was to bring lessons in cultural diversity and international awareness to students in Hancock County. The educators say they are eager to share what they saw and learned with their students. (Photo provided to The Courier)

KELLY WOHLGAMUTH, a fifth-grade teacher at Wilson Vance Intermediate School, plays with children at a school in Japan. Wohlgamuth was among a group of educators who visited Japan this summer through a Fulbright Scholarship program. The goal was to bring lessons in cultural diversity and international awareness to students in Hancock County. The educators say they are eager to share what they saw and learned with their students. (Photo provided to The Courier)


Students at several area schools will have the chance this school year to learn more about life in Japan, thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship educational tour program which allowed several area teachers to travel there this summer.

Nine Hancock County teachers, three University of Findlay pre-service teachers and University of Findlay Japanese professor Hiro Kawamura spent four weeks in Japan this summer. Now the teachers are tasked with educating their classrooms and the broader community about what they learned.

The goal was “to examine first-hand how cultural diversity continues to play a significant role in the increasingly globalized society now being faced here in the 21st century,” Van Buren High School social studies teacher Rob Obenour said in an email.

Kawamura said it’s part of a larger effort to “internationalize” the Findlay community.

Jennifer Obenour teaches social studies and language arts at Van Buren Local Schools. Throughout the four weeks in Japan, she said, the group would think each day that nothing could top that day’s experience, only to find themselves thinking the following day, “Wow, this is even better than yesterday.”

The teachers visited several Japanese schools in Okayama in central Japan, culminating with an educational symposium at one of Japan’s prestigious English immersion schools, Esau Gakkan.

Rob Obenour enjoyed getting to visit “different kinds of schools” during the first week in Japan and talk to educators there about how their struggles were similar and different. The Japanese and American teachers found they faced similar issues, including “how can we motivate our children in the 21st century?”

Kelly Wohlgamuth, a fifth-grade teacher at Wilson Vance Intermediate School, was struck by how different the schools were.

“For me it was interesting that even after teaching for 14 years I felt like a fish out of water in a fifth-grade classroom. … That was definitely one of my big take-aways,” Wohlgamuth said.

She said the Japanese “really instill good moral values” in students, including having students clean the classrooms.

The teachers visited classrooms from preschool through high school as well as a school for students with disabilities, which Wohlgamuth said might be comparable to Blanchard Valley Center in Findlay.

Wohlgamuth expects the trip to “have a big impact on my teaching.” She teaches social studies and, while her curriculum focuses on the Western Hemisphere, it covers economics, trade, immigration and “what a global society we live in.” She is also developing reading curriculum related to Japanese stories, in which students will learn about theme and plot and character development.

The teachers spent a full day in Hiroshima, one of two Japanese cities upon which the United States dropped atomic bombs in 1945. They talked with a survivor of the bombing.

“Talking to a survivor was a very interesting experience,” Wohlgamuth said.

Jennifer Obenour called it “a very powerful day.”

Survivors at Hiroshima are, Riverdale High School world history teacher Jon Hayfield said, “using it not as a source of anger or contempt. They’re using it to move forward and try to build a peaceful world.”

The teachers visited many historical landmarks in Kyoto, including castles, shrines, temples and the traditional Imperial Palace of the Fujiwara period. They learned about the Buddhist religion by spending a day with two practicing monks.

Hayfield enjoyed the “overall spiritual nature of Japan,” including Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

He plans to incorporate what he learned in Japan into the classroom. Japan is “just so old,” Hayfield said, noting that the group visited one site, a temple complex in the city of Nara, that was built in the 700s.

Hayfield noted that guests were required to take off their shoes at many sites, and walking on bare feet on floors that had been worn down over the centuries led to a feeling of awe.

Nara’s giant temple complex was built by the first people to endorse Buddhism as a religion. Hayfield said he came around a corner to see “the largest wooden building I will ever see in my life … I had never seen anything like that.” In front of the building were statues from 20 to 60 feet in height.

Jennifer Obenour was particularly struck by the monks who “were so helpful and they were so generous and so kind to us. … They basically let us go anywhere we wanted to in their temple.” She said seeing how the temple was laid out and learning the reasons behind it makes it all make “much more sense” and makes her feel better able to answer her students’ questions.

The group toured several places with Findlay ties including the GS Electech facility in Nagoya, which is the parent company of Findlay’s GSW Manufacturing; the Chiba Institute of Science’s Risk and Crisis Management program in Choshi, designed after the crisis management program at the University of Findlay; and the Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaido, where they met with several of Japan’s leading researchers in agricultural management and wildlife conservation, several of whom have offered guest lectures at the University of Findlay in the past.

The teachers spent “considerable time” in Saitama Prefecture (a prefecture is like an American state) and the city of Tokyo. They discussed “a variety of modern social topics including women’s roles in the economy, the growing elderly population, child care, as well as school curriculum and attendance,” Rob Obenour wrote. They met Saitama Gov. Kiyoshi Ueda to discuss the state of education in his prefecture. Ueda plans to visit Findlay in September.

In Tokyo the group visited the Imperial Palace, National Diet, National Museum of History, Tokyo Bombing Resource Center, Japanese Language Institute and the Olympic Center, built for the 1964 summer Olympic games. They also attended a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which Rob Obenour found to be a highlight.

Jennifer Obenour said the ceremony involved so much symbolism and she was struck by the message of “ichi go, ichi e” or “one moment, one opportunity.” She said the message was to “live in that moment.”

“That’s one of the things I want to stress to my students this year,” Jennifer Obenour said.

Rob Obenour also intends to incorporate the tea ceremony into his lessons, to have his students watch a tea ceremony video on YouTube and supplement it with speeches from famous people.

“There’s always a different opportunity to learn,” Rob Obenour said. “There’s always a different opportunity to share. There’s always a different opportunity to grow closer to somebody.”

The teachers also went to a baseball game “which was very interesting, very different,” Jennifer Obenour said.
Lindsay Alexander, a second-grade teacher at Cory-Rawson Elementary School, was struck by the beauty of Japan.

“The scenery was amazing,” Alexander said.

The group of teachers came from several schools and taught across many grade levels but they formed friendships during their travels. Wohlgamuth predicted they will become “lifelong friends.”

“We meshed really well,” Alexander said.

The teachers were also struck with how friendly and hospitable the Japanese people they met were.

“I mean everyone, everywhere,” Hayfield said.

Alexander hopes to teach some of these values to her students, such as “being considerate of others.” She’s also thinking of teaching some basic Japanese language skills.

The trip to Japan is part of a yearlong project in which teachers will educate their students and the community about Japan. Kawamura’s hope is not that the teachers create a day or two dedicated to Japan, but instead integrate what they learned into their curriculum throughout the year.

Kawamura said the teachers’ travel in Japan is part of a larger “Community Internationalization Project,” aiming to create a more international community in Findlay. The project, which involves University of Findlay as well as K-12 students, began in 2011 and was originally to run for three years. While Kawamura was raising funds to expand the program for subsequent years, area economic development leaders were emphasizing workforce development. Kawamura said meeting people from other cultures is a part of this.

“We want the young people to be able to work with anybody from anywhere,” he said.

The majority of the expenses for the teachers’ travel came from a Fulbright grant. Kawamura said they also received a Martha Holden Jennings Foundation grant and a Community Foundation grant, which will pay for things the Fulbright money doesn’t cover, such as purchasing instructional materials.

Kawamura noted that the University of Findlay has students from other foreign countries such as China and Saudi Arabia. He envisions Japan serving as a “case study” showing how to integrate an international perspective. His hope is that this grows to include a more international focus in general in education and in the community.

“This is not a university project,” Kawamura said. “This is a community project.”

As part of the Fulbright project, the teachers are encouraged to share their experiences in Japan with other local organizations. Groups interested in learning more about Japan and its role in the 21st century globalization process are encouraged to contact any of the teachers at their schools or Kawamura at the University of Findlay.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
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