My class had an amazing experience this morning, one that grew out of the earlier contact that I had with @barbsaka. My 6th grade is studying feudal Japan, and as though of you who read this blog know, I put out a call on Twitter for help with the unit. We had been doing a wide variety of activities to help them understand the complexity of the culture. They had learned about the social stuctures, who had power and how was it enforced, and they learned about Shintoism and Buddhism. They had read stories and created posters, feeling increasingly in control of the culture. They love using a website that Barb had recommended, http://web-japan.org/kidsweb/ to learn about everything from games to history to schooling.
Barb put me in touch with a British woman, Victoria Yoshimura, who moved to Japan, married and became a Buddhist priest. I emailed Victoria to ask if she would be willing to have a Skype conversation with the class. Victoria was more than willing to rearrange her schedule to make it happen, even though, in our initial conversations, it meant we would be talking at 8:00 am. in Philadelphia and 10:00 pm. in Japan. Luckily, with change to Daylight Savings, the conversation was able to start at 9:00 pm. Either way, though, Victoria was incredibly flexible.
To get the girls ready, we had the three 6th grade classes read an article on Victoria from the Japan Times, and we watched a trailer to a movie about her. After watching, the students wrote up a list of questions. There was a wide range of issues that they were interested in, but they mostly dealt with two aspects of her life. The first was her life as a priest: How did she become a priest? What was her daily life like? Did she wear any special clothes? What were the rituals? The second was her daily life in Japan: What was her house like? Was it hard to learn Japanese? Did she miss living in England? Did she have any pets?
Victoria and I touched base last night, just to make sure that the Skype connection worked and to say “Hi” in person, rather than simply by email. This morning, I got to school extra early, mostly due to my own case of nerves. I was so excited to be able to make a connection in Japan for the girls. I had never done this before and wasn’t sure how it would go. I had emailed Victoria a list of the students’ questions. The girls came in, and it was clear that they were not taking this lightly. They might live in a digital world, but they don’t communicate with people on the other side of the world every day. They were fairly awed by someone taking time to talk to them about her life. And then suddenly, it was time to connect.
Victoria was amazingly generous with her time, spending an hour with the class. She was also amazingly honest. The girls were impressed with her sense of humor and her willingness to share the challenges in her life as well as the successes. After a half hour, I was aware of how much of her time we were using, and offered to stop, but she wanted to answer each and every question. She is a wonderful teacher, affirming each girl and making them a part of the conversation as she answered their specific questions and then tied it in with other answers she had given.
At the end of the hour, all of the students and all of the adults in the room felt like they had made a genuine connection with someone in Japan, someone that we all want to visit in person as well as through the internet. As one student said, “You can read about it in books and watch movies, but there is nothing like talking to a real person and learning about their experience.”
For these students, meeting Victoria via Skype was as real as having her here in the room. She welcomed us into her house and my students will never think of Japan or Buddhism in the same way. Both are no longer a topic in a textbook; they are the way a new friend leads her life. By listening and learning from Victoria, it all came alive and became so much more grounded.
Thank you to Victoria and to Barb for the willingness to share your world with us! It truly made a difference!