East-West Encounter: Japanese Educators Visit Wildwood

At Wildwood, we believe in sharing.  Through the Wildwood Outreach Center, we share our best educational practices with educators locally, nationally, and internationally.  This week the Outreach Center welcomed a visit by eight early childhood and early elementary educators from Japan, who visited the elementary campus to see the best of Wildwood in action.

After greetings were exchanged, I escorted our visitors to the kindergarten-1st grade Pelican Pod where I knew that the students had prepared something special in anticipation of the visit. As we walked into the room, Head Teacher Susanne Guilbert smiled and said “Perfect timing!”

“Konnichiwa!” the Pelican Pod students exclaimed in unison, catching the Japanese visitors pleasantly off guard. Along with Associate Teacher, Christine Steenken, the students sat in a circle on their colorful rug beaming with excitement toward the new friends who’ve entered their room.

Together the students had also prepared a giant welcome banner for the visitors, along with a special book filled with greeting notes from each student.  Susanne presented the book to Mari Yoneda, the group’s interpreter. Our Japanese guests took in the scene and examined the students’ notes with huge smiles. Their eyes light up seeing that two of the students, Oliver P. and Hanami W., wrote their greeting notes in Japanese!

Gradually, Susanne and Christine help the students re-focus on the school task at hand: Morning meeting. The Japanese visitors take seats in the diminutive classroom chairs and take out notebooks, watching rapturously as the students went around their circle to greet each other. I quietly provide context to Mari, which she relays to her colleagues in Japanese.

The visiting educators are here at Wildwood today as part of an annual exchange program led by author and child development professor, Dr. Barbara Polland—who also happens to be grandmother to Pelican Pod student, Sadie C.  For the past 15 summers, Barbara has hosted groups of educators as they travel throughout southern California, seeing exemplary schools in action. As she’s come to know the elementary program this year through her granddaughter’s experiences, Barbara knew that this summer she had to bring her guests to see Wildwood.

After our visit to the Pelican Pod I take the Japanese visitors to other classrooms and sites on the elementary campus.

The new outdoor classroom and Big Yard Woods really captured the visitors’ interest.  Like Wildwood’s early elementary program, our Japanese visitors’ schools have embraced the internationally renowned Reggio Emilia approach, an educational best practice from Italy that values student learning from their natural environment. But it was the arroyo in The Big Yard Woods that truly captured our visitors’ imaginations and accolades. They were enchanted by the interactive water feature, which allows students to simulate and control the flow of a life-like mini river.  I was reminded by the fact that the words “Reggio Emilia” needed no Japanese interpretation that we have ample evidence that Wildwood’s program reflects world-wide best practice.

Before departing, our Japanese visitors pay a call on Elementary School Director, Katie Rios. “They consider it a major honor to be in the presence of the school leader,” Barbara tells me.  Katie shares the history of Wildwood School and its progressive philosophy and takes questions from the visiting educators.  Finally, one of the visiting teachers, Kensuke Suzuki, presents Katie with a bag of gifts for Wildwood’s students—hundreds of origami figures in the shapes of pianos, foxes and balls that the Japanese educators folded themselves.

The sharing had come full circle.

The visiting Japanese educators with Dr. Barbara Polland (center left) and Director of Elementary School, Katie Rios (center right)

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