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  • Tandi Churchill

Connecting Students to the Community

Now more than ever, students need real-life context for their learning. They need to see a connection between the classroom and the world in which they live in order to understand the purpose of their studies. As an educator, I have seen even the most reluctant of learners meet and frequently surpass my high expectations when their learning is driven by meaningful community connections and real-world experiences. So, when engaging my students in a long-term study about how the geography of Japan affects the way that people live, I set up a visit to a local sushi bar and grill.

As an Expeditionary-Learning School, we design expeditions, or in-depth, long-term learning experiences, as an authentic and engaging way to cover the standards. I designed a "Land of the Rising Sun Expedition" to engage the students in an exploration of the many ways that culture is influenced by the geography of the land. I chose Japan as the "lens" through which to study this standard because of its eclectic blend of both the ancient and modern.

​I try to engage my students in experiential learning as much as possible. Any time you allow students to see, hear, touch, smell, or taste the learning, it sticks with them. Over the course of the next three months, I immersed them in the language, food, clothing, music, customs, traditions, and celebrations of the Japanese people. All of their experiences led up to a performance-based celebration of learning.

During our Japanese Cuisine case study, I worked with the owners of Tona Sushi Bar & Grill, Tony and Tina, to create a meaningful, purpose-driven experience that would enrich our current unit of study about the island of Japan. I shared our long-term learning targets and the intended outcomes of the visit with the owners to help them understand our goals. We agreed on a time and date and I got to work on permission slips and rounding up parent volunteers (which wasn't hard to do for some reason). The arrangement was mutually beneficial as the owners got some local exposure for their business and I got an authentic experience for my students that would help them make an important real-world connection.

Prior to our visit, the students had been immersed in a week-long case study about the geography of Japan. Their project for this study was to create a relief map of Japan out of salt dough. They labeled the four main islands, the Pacific Ocean, and the Sea of Japan. It was a bit messy and the quality varied from student to student but it was very engaging. I love hands-on projects because engagement is always very high and the need for classroom management all but fizzles away. I can spend my time having little one-on-one mini-conferences with the students and seeing them as individuals again, rather than a collective whole. This case study led us into the next case study on Japanese cuisine as the students were invited to speculate about the kinds of food that would be available to people living on an archipelago such as this. It was during this case study that we ventured out to Tona Sushi Bar and Grill.

When the day arrived for our fieldwork (as we call it) the students were excited yet divided about their feelings regarding the expectation to sample some authentic Japanese cuisine, including trying at least one bite of a sushi roll. Some students had already developed a love of sushi at 9 years of age and were salivating at the thought, while others with a less experienced pallet, were dreading it but promised to make a diligent effort. When we arrived, we were ushered in to a private dining area and the students were instructed to remove their shoes. They sat at traditional low tables on tatami mats.

Tina then engaged the students in a mini-lesson about traditional Japanese cuisine and etiquette. She explained how Japan's climate was suitable for growing rice and other vegetables and how their proximity to water made fish readily available. As such, the main staples of a traditional Japanese meal were rice, soup, vegetables, and fish. Next, she engaged the students in some traditional Japanese etiquette, inviting the students to practice saying Idatakimasu, or "Let's eat," as a way of expressing gratitude for their meal. She also taught them the proper and polite way to hold their chopsticks.

After her lesson, it was time to dive in and experience Japanese culture through the taste buds! They were each served a sampling of miso soup, edamame, and California Rolls. This was experiential learning at its best! They struggled their way through the handling of the chopsticks, the squeezing of the soybeans out of their pods, and the sampling of a California Sushi Roll. Some of the students who had been reluctant to sample the sushi discovered much to their surprise that they weren't utterly repulsed by the taste. For other students, it was an affirmation that PB & J sandwiches were still the best things on earth.

After this delectable dining experience, the students slipped on their shoes and were escorted to the sushi bar for another mini-lesson, this time by Tony. He demonstrated first-hand the skill of an experienced Japanese sushi chef and taught the students about the differences between sashimi and sushi rolls. After this mini-lesson, Tony invited the students to pose any questions they still had about Japanese cuisine. When we returned to class, we sat in our sharing circle and debriefed the experience.

This was just one of many connections we made to the community throughout this 3 month-long learning experience. As an Expeditionary Learning charter school, we strive to bring expert guests into the classroom and engage the students in field work outside the classroom as much as possible. Collaborating with the owners of this sushi bar and grill was a real treat and an experience the students and I will not soon forget. You can't beat experiential learning through the taste buds!

The owners generously donated their time, talents, and over 30 plates of Japanese food (yes the parent helpers were glad they came on this trip) to make this experience a truly authentic and memorable one.

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