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CHCCS Students Sharpen Japanese Speaking Skills in Contest

Every year, CHCCS Japanese Teacher, Yoshimi Aoyagi, directs an in-school speech contest for her 103 students at Chapel Hill High School (CHHS) and East Chapel Hill High School (ECHHS). The contest took place at both schools on February 19, with the top contestants from each level advancing to the North Carolina Japanese Speech Contest on March 7. 

The student-written speech topics ranged from “Foreign Idols in K-Pop” to “Gundam Plastic Models” and “LGTB Rights in Japan.” Students came to the front of the class (at CHHS) or Black Box Theater (ECHHS), introduced themselves, bowed and then spoke entirely in Japanese. Level I speeches lasted a couple of minutes, but students in Levels 3 and 4 spoke for more than five minutes each, often with only passing glances at their notecards. For non-Japanese speakers, a summary of each speech was projected on a screen behind the students. Throughout the presentations, Aoyagi nodded encouragement, smiling.

Judge Japanese speech contest Five judges evaluated each student’s presentation, using the main criteria of delivery, language and content. For the content, high marks went to socially and contextually authentic material that was written with creativity and originality. Four of the native Japanese-speaking judges were CHCCS parents. Aoyagi said, “This is one of my community involvement projects.  I want to connect our schools to the Japanese community in Chapel Hill, Cary and Raleigh.”

One parent emailed Aoyagi within hours of the contests’ completion. “Thank you so very much for this wonderful event,” she wrote. “I am amazed at the level of effort it takes to put together such an event and every element worked: the bilingual invites, the event presentation, the special judges, and so much more I’m sure I’m not aware of.”

On a daily basis, to enter one of Aoyagi’s classrooms is by many students’ description, “to step into a bubble.” The atmosphere is both light-hearted and formal, an unusual balance, but it’s noticeable right away. Students bow to visitors, and when they introduce themselves, they use different honorifics, depending on the visitor’s status- a parent or older sibling versus a principal. All students call their teacher Sensei. In the profile posted when she won the national 2017 Elgin Heinz Award, her impact is described this way: “Ms. Aoyagi has a reputation for being strict; her classes are rigorous and she sets high expectations. Nonetheless, her students know her best for fostering a classroom environment that is inclusive, exciting, and inspiring.”    

ECHHS Japanese 3 student, Jenny Blass, said, “Mrs. Aoyagi, or Sensei, as we call her in class, is easily one of the best teachers I've ever had. One of the best things about the class is the environment. A lot of students, including me, have been studying together since we were freshmen, so there's an air of familiarity with one another in Japanese that I don't feel in my other classes. Sensei is somewhat strict, but not in a mean or unfair way, and she's willing to crack jokes and have fun in class. In other words, she is formal, but not stifling, and I feel this causes students to take the class more seriously. She also really emphasizes learning about Japanese culture, and I have written reports about Japanese holidays and prefectures that help me better understand the country and people.”

“Ultimately I would say that learning it has opened my eyes to things we take for granted in American culture, which may not be the same in Japan,” Blass said. “Even the language itself, since it's so different from English, has taught me a lot about linguistics, and has made me more aware of how English works in a way I don't think would have been possible with more commonly taught European languages. Taking her class has really enriched my high school experience.”

Japanese speech contest Aoyagi came to CHCCS in 2007, after many years of teaching at the college level (Rollins College, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and others). She has taught at Carrboro High School, ECHHS and CHHS, but has now settled in at the latter two-- mornings at CHHS and afternoons at ECHHS. At both schools, she covers Japanese I-IV as well as Advanced Placement, and her students quickly form a community that carries them well past graduation. 

Her students come from many language backgrounds themselves. Some of her students are former ESL students at CHCCS, and Japanese is their third or fourth language. Anne Tomalin teaches ESL at both CHHS and Phoenix Academy, and she said, “There's a body of research indicating that bilinguals learn a new language more readily than monolinguals, and that each time a person adds another language, it gets easier.  I think ELs and former ELs have an emotional advantage also. They already know what it feels like to make speaking errors, and so the prospect of making mistakes doesn't intimidate them as much, especially in a safe, supportive environment like Ms. Aoyogi's class (or an EL class).”

Some students choose to enroll in a Japanese class because of their strong interests in Japanese culture, perhaps anime, film or martial arts. Some hope to teach English in Japan or work in international business. Jacob Wiener, Japanese 4 student at CHHS, said, “After I went to Japan the summer after tenth grade, I realized I can definitely see myself working there for years.” His speech was about the working environment in Japan, because he’s interested in exploring the country’s economic opportunities.

His classmate, Nick Case, identifies as Japanese-Irish, and his speech was titled “Being Mixed in America.” Although his mother grew up around Japanese speakers in Los Angeles, Case had not learned the language. He moved to Chapel Hill eight years ago; when he was choosing high school courses, he said, “Whoa-- they have a Japanese class? I never want to give it up now.”

Wiener studied Latin at McDougle Middle School. “I started learning how language works,” he said. Before high school, he watched a five minute video on “How to Learn Korean,” and he was hooked. “I fell in love with languages.” Of Aoyagi, he said, “She’s really good at helping you push ahead. She won’t let you get bored. For a lot of people, it’s hard to learn a language without that push.”

Although Aoyagi is tireless in her efforts to help her students perform at a high level, no one signs up for these classes because they’re easy. By October, even Japanese I students are writing essays, forming the characters in tiny boxes on Genkō yōshi, a special kind of paper.

“I always challenge students to develop their cognitive ideas including understanding different cultures,” Aoyagi said. “I want to give them chances to think what they are and what they can do.”

One point that Aoyagi emphasizes is that students who study a foreign language need experiences outside the classroom. Besides encouraging them to enter regional and national competitions, she has established exchange opportunities with schools throughout Japan. More than 150 of her students have traveled to Japan during summers since 2009. 

Recently Aoyagi was named the Southeastern Association of Teachers of Japanese (SEATJ) Teacher of the Year, one of many teaching awards bestowed on her. She will be presenting a paper about K12 Advocacy at the SEATJ conference in Memphis, Tennessee on February 22.