In the Community: Making Language and Culture Elementary

by Margaret Nilsson

Just after recess, the sixth-graders in Ms. Fulton’s class settle in for their Japanese lesson. A chorus of “Ohayoo gozaimasu!”* greets Cori Hanagami, Jennifer Lee, and Allison Yoneyama, the three Scripps sophomores who have introduced Japanese to these children at Chaparral Elementary School in Claremont.

Japanese, and other foreign languages, are not typically part of the curriculum in California’s public elementary schools. Yet, thanks to a Core III course at Scripps, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders at this local elementary school benefit from a foreign language class taught each year by Scripps students.

When the College was designing its upper-level Core curriculum, Thierry Boucquey, professor of French and convenor of foreign languages, proposed an innovative class: the “Foreign Language and Culture Teaching Clinic.” The clinic is a seminar class designed to foster innovation and collaboration among students and requiring a significant self-designed project. In particular, this class has Scripps students design and teach a course in a foreign language and culture to grade-school students. Typically, the Scripps students are not native speakers of the foreign language; they have achieved proficiency from study of the language and often from time spent abroad.

This year, through the Core class, 18 Scripps students—divided into teams of two or three—taught Chinese, French, Japanese, and Spanish at Chaparral Elementary. The Scripps students use a blend of linguistic and cultural components in their teaching. According to Professor Boucquey,”We don’t teach the children vocabulary or verbs in isolation—that is a formula for failure. The language needs to be taught in a real-life, cultural context.” So, a language class might include sessions about traditional foods, costumes, holidays, art, or ceremonies of a particular country.

The sixth-graders who took Japanese this year were given an introduction to everyday life and customs in Japan. Cori Hanagami explains: “We teach the kids how to function and behave in different situations. Japanese culture is all about mannerisms, so having the kids learn about these mannerisms and cultural subtleties is important in avoiding crosscultural misunderstandings between Japanese and Americans.”

Jung Fitzpatrick ’01, a graduate of the Core III class says,”Representing culture was a challenge since as language instructors we had the power to portray culture however we decided.” Often, important historical events are introduced to the elementary school audience through the language class. Two years ago, Allison Wither and Elyse Spencer, now seniors, taught German at Chaparral. To teach the fifth graders about the Berlin Wall, they divided the classroom into two halves with blue tape, creating a makeshift East and West Berlin. The students on one side were not allowed to have any interaction with the students on the other side for an entire week. At the end of the week, the tape was removed and the class discussed the idea of separation, segregation, and reunification.

The Core course, praised by children, teachers, and parents alike, has also been credited with an increased interest in foreign languages and cultures and a greater tolerance for diversity among the grade school population. “Certainly, if we are ever going to have world peace, we need to understand and respect each other,” suggests Chaparral teacher Judy Hill, whose fifth graders have benefited from learning about Spanish and German cultures.

The Scripps students who have participated in the Clinic gain from improved language and interpersonal skills, experience in teaching, and increased confidence. And Thierry Boucquey, who has the pleasure of watching his students grow into teachers, confides, “This course remains for me the single most fulfilling pedagogic experience in nearly 20 years of teaching at Scripps.”

* Phonetic representation of “Good morning!” in Japanese.