Perched precariously on pint-sized chairs, a delegation of teachers from Rikuzentakata, Japan watched intently as Diana Lee gave a lesson on the water cycle to kindergartners.

Though her students ranged in age from 4-6, Lee, who also teaches transitional kindergarten at Smith River School, used the water cycle and the weather to teach the youngsters their letters. Pretty soon, the Rikuzentakata delegation joined in, reciting the sentences along with the students.

“This is a six-week unit; we probably did two weeks in two days for you guys,” Lee said Friday. “We wanted you to see what we teach and how it looks in kindergarten, so we advanced these guys quickly. You guys are going to be amazed.”

While Del Norte High School hosted 11 students from Takata High School, along with their English teacher and principal, 10 elementary school teachers received a closer look at how their American counterparts approach their job.

On Thursday, the teachers, along with Kenji Kin, superintendent of the Rikuzentakata City Board of Education, visited Del Norte High School, sitting in on its native languages classes, examining the electrical car and tiny house of its career technical education program and getting a better taste of what special education at the high school level looks like.

On Friday, the Rikuzentakata teachers delegation visited Redwood School to learn more about Del Norte County Unified School District’s special education program. They then proceeded to Smith River School to learn about the district’s English as a second language program. The teachers also visited Knela Newton’s classroom at Smith River School to see her flexible seating approach to teaching third grade.

According to Del Norte County Unified School District Superintendent Jeff Harris, who led the tour, the Rikuzentakata teachers delegation wanted to see how the district approaches special education. He noted special needs students generally aren’t included in the school system in Japan. At Redwood School, however, Harris said mild to severely-disabled students are taught in the classroom alongside their general education peers.

“The mayor of Rikuzentakata was very interested in the idea of inclusion, creating a more community-based program,” Harris said referring to special needs students. “That was the impetus of this conversation around second language learning and inclusion practices.”

The relationship between Rikuzentakata and Del Norte County Unified School District began in 2013 when a 20-foot long fishing vessel, Kamome, washed ashore on South Beach. Once belonging to Takata High School’s marine sciences program, the fishing vessel was swept away by the March 2011 tsunami to be deposited just south of Crescent City.

At the request of Takata High School, students from Del Norte High took it upon themselves to clean the barnacle-encrusted vessel up and return it. This sparked a series of cultural exchanges and the signing of a sister school pact between the two high schools and culminated in last year’s sister city relationship between Rikuzentakata and Crescent City.

On Friday, Harris noted that as the cultural exchanges between the two high schools continued, professionals became intrigued by the teaching practices their colleagues on the other side of the Pacific Ocean use.

Rikuzentakata’s elementary school system is operated through the city, Harris said. Takata High School operates separately from the elementary school system.

The district, Crescent City and Del Norte County are also pursuing a grant through the U.S. Embassy that, if successful, would result in a series of workshops and conversations around women’s empowerment and education, especially in the area of including special needs students, Harris said. The current visit of Rikuzentakata elementary school teachers is a springboard to that larger opportunity, he said.

“Women empowerment, our county’s a great example of people that we have in positions of authority, from nonprofits, from businesses, county government, city government, school board, tribal governments, it’s great,” he said. “They’re very interested in having a conversation around women’s empowerment and inclusion and how they would impact the city and prefecture of Iwate.”

Kin said his teachers wanted to know more about how their American colleagues teach and how they built the learning environments in their classrooms. He said he is impressed by the individualized approach he and his teachers found at Del Norte High, Redwood and Smith River schools. Kin said the experience was eye-opening for his teachers.

“I would say (it’s a) positive shock,” Kin said, speaking through a translator. “They are overwhelmed. They start thinking it’s so different, how am I going to do this. Then they’re slowly processing what they learned and then they start thinking oh how am I going to do this back in Japan.”

While many of the students who were attending elementary school when the March 2011 tsunami occurred have graduated, Kin said there’s still anxiety and their parents are still struggling. Their families are still recovering from the disaster, he said, having lost their homes and their relatives. The students are having to grow up in that environment, Kin said.

Kin said school counselors and teachers have offered support to the students who need it and have focused on maintaining a normal educational and safe environment so they can act “like a normal kid.”

“So they can enjoy the school life, they enjoy learning and enjoy being with their friends, teachers and feeling safe,” Kin said.

Kin was full of praise about the delegation’s visit to Del Norte County, which included a special karaoke performance of “Stand by Me” at the high school’s homecoming game on Thursday. He and his teachers were especially charmed by the students.

“The kids are so sweet!” he said. “They come to see us, to say hello. They even gave (me) a hug!”

The delegation, which includes Rikuzentakata Deputy Mayor Masayuki Okamoto and Kiyoshi Murakami, senior executive advisor for Rikuzentakata, will continue their stay in Del Norte today with visits to the airport, the Crescent City Harbor and Battery Point Lighthouse.

The delegation will also be treated to a Del Norte Movie tour focusing on “Star Wars,” “ET, the Extra Terrestrial” and “Bird Box,” as well as a drum circle hosted by the Del Norte Association for Cultural Awareness.

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