My grandmother sent me an email a week or so ago asking if my son would be interested in sharing something about him and where we live as part of a fourth grader’s class “Journey Journal” which started its adventure in October. My Aunt Ann, Jonah’s “great aunt” as she likes to call herself, described it as a modified Flat Stanley project. I jumped at the chance, as I thought it would be an excellent opportunity for Jonah to work on describing where we live in Japan to someone who doesn’t live here, a skill that will likely prove useful for him in the future.
Dilemmas: What to do?
When the journal arrived, though, I was faced with a bit of a dilemma as I began reading its remit, which stated, “…mail the journal to another person you know in another part of the United States” after we add our part, and then later it said, “Thank you for helping us to learn more about our country.” There is an argument that can be made that since we are US citizens, my son and I, that we could indeed complete our entry in the knowledge that we were helping this class to learn more about the US. However, after 14 years of living in Japan, the only country my son has ever been resident in, it seemed a bit backward to explain to him that we would be helping this class of fourth graders to learn about the US through explaining where we live in Japan, and so I took the prerogative to amend those statements to use “world” so now it’s “…mail the journal to another person you know in another part of the
United States world” and “Thank you for helping us to learn more about our country world” and presented the task to Jonah this way, explaining my feelings and why I made the amendment.
As we got to work on the task, this still left me a bit uncertain as to how to proceed, as I could either send the journal on to another international address or I could mail it back to the US after we finished with it. Unsure what to do, I invited opinions on Facebook in order to solicit some addresses from friends and acquaintances who would be willing and interested in receiving the journal next, and I emailed the class teacher to ask her how she and her student would like for me to proceed. I got a really touching and encouraging reply the same day:
That is so exciting. Even though our journals are supposed to teach the students about the United States, I think it is more exciting for them to learn about other countries. I left the decision up to [the student], and she agreed. She would love for you to send the journal around the world. Thank you so much for putting so much time into the journal. We can’t wait to get it back in April. [The student] is so excited, too! Thanks again!
Writing our entry
So that was one dilemma solved. My next decision involved how my son would compose his contribution to the journal. I debated working with him to write it in English, but decided that he goes to school in Japanese, learns reading and writing in Japanese, and has been studying about where we live in…Japanese, and to take that away from him in thinking and writing about where he lives, and to give the impression to the class in the US that the world is monolingually English, would be to miss an opportunity for Jonah and the class to learn even more from the experience. Thus the solution was that he wrote what he wanted in Japanese (with strategic guidance from his mother—Thanks, Yuki!) and I translated it into English with him verbally before typing it myself. Incidentally, this is Jonah’s first ever composition typed on a computer:
Hello everyone. I hope this message finds you well.
I’m Jonah Riku Muller. I am nine years old and I am in the third grade at Gofuku Elementary School in Toyama, Japan. Mary Lou is my great grandmother!
I was born in Nagano, but now I live in Toyama. Nagano has a lot of nature and the summers are cool. I like Reisenji Lake in Nagano. Near Reisenji there is the Tengu no yu hot spring, which has an outdoor bath. But winters in Nagano are difficult because there’s a lot of snow. If you visit Nagano, I don’t recommend the winter because it’s too cold.
Next, I’m going to talk about Toyama. Toyama’s summer is really hot! But there are a lot of good places to see here, like Tateyama Mountain and Toyama Castle. Toyama is also known for its firefly squid. Because the summers are hot, please take care if you visit Toyama during those months.
If you can, please visit Japan.
Next, I’m going to show you some pictures taken in Japan.
These are the photos we used for the piece:
This was intended to give a little context as to how we came to get the journal. Grandma lived much of her life near the small town in Iowa where the journal started its journey.
This is the firefly squid, which is only found in Toyama Bay. It’s a local delicacy
What did I learn?
What did I get out of this experience, besides a bit of quality time with my son? Well, I quickly realized how everything is local. While we happen to live in Japan, Jonah can explain pretty well about some interesting things in Toyama and Nagano, but asking him to explain Japan would be too much of a tall order. I was also touched by the fact that this classroom teacher and her student a half a world away are excited to have had their class project hijacked by a stranger in Japan and have him send their journal on around the world.
I also realized that while our entry should return to the class from which it originated in April 2015, in the meantime, it will be read by the people who receive the journal between now and then. That’s pretty exciting; that we’ll be presenting ourselves to strangers who will touch the journal between now and when it completes its journey.
What did my son learn?
Jonah worked more on representing himself to others in the past week than I think perhaps he’s done in the past few years. He also had the chance to practice sharing knowledge as a subject matter expert with people less informed than him, and had to work on what information is important to include in such explanations to make them comprehensible. Another important thing is that he grew more connected to people in a country whose passport he holds, and he could learn a bit more about his father’s side of the family through his grandmother’s entry in the journal.
The practical skills he came away with are also interesting. Representation, and how the choice of words can influence meaning were something we discussed early on. He also learned how to type Japanese on the computer, something many of my university students struggle with.
Where is the journal going next?
My biggest concern now is the reliability of the mail service internationally. Mehmet in Turkey, who I met at the first English Scholars Beyond Borders Conference in Izmir, Turkey, where he lives, has generously agreed to be the next recipient of the journal. I’m particularly happy because with him the connection with the US remains; he spent six months working in the US earlier this year before returning to Turkey to take up a teaching position at what I think is equivalent to a combined Elementary and Junior High School. I don’t know where it’s going to go after that, but I sincerely hope it continues to circulate until it returns to the elementary school from which it originated.
To sign off, I photographed some of the pages we added to the journal and included them below.
I also added a world map inside the front cover of the notebook to substitute for the map of the US on the front cover of the notebook.