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Southwest's Japanese language students benefit from teachers from two continents
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Southwest's Japanese language students benefit from teachers from two continents


A heated game of “rock, paper, scissors” played out at the front of a Southwest High School classroom Friday as two teachers pitted their rocks against the other’s scissors, their open-handed papers flying along with exclamations of “janken poi!”

It began with all 31 students playing the time-honored contest as part of a lesson to learn Japanese phonetic characters called Hiragana.

It ended with their teachers battling it out: small-town Nebraskan vs. big-city Tokyo native.

For the next two years, this duo will offer the Japanese language students at Southwest a rare opportunity.

Japanese language classes already are scarce in Nebraska: Southwest is the only high school in Lincoln Public Schools — and one of the few in the state — that offers them. 

And, for the next two years, students will get to learn the language not only from Tammy Cunningham, the teacher who began the program at Southwest, but from Yu Hiraoka, who taught in her native Japan, as well as Africa and France, before landing in the middle of America.

Southwest was selected as one of nine sites in the country to host a teacher exchange program called the Japanese Language Education Assistant Program through the Laurasian Institution, a nonprofit educational and cultural exchange organization.

The program had been on Cunningham’s radar for several years and the timing was right this year to apply.

She took Japanese as a junior in high school, a distance learning course with a teacher who broadcast lessons across the country — including to her school in the south-central Nebraska town of Curtis — from a studio at Nebraska Educational Telecommunications in Lincoln.

She was intrigued by the written language and fascinated by the country's history and culture, and did a yearlong exchange program while she was studying at Nebraska Wesleyan. When she graduated from college she spent another three years in a similar teacher exchange program in Japan.

Nearly 20 years later, she said, this exchange program was a chance to help a Japanese teacher as others had helped her.

“I felt I could do them the kindness that was done to me,” she said. “So many educators in Japan helped me.”

She also did it for her students. 

“I thought it would be so great for my students to a have a person who was young and up with what’s going on in Japan and a native speaker,” she said.

Hiraoka earned a degree in linguistics, and while working at a shipping company in Japan, earned a certificate to teach elementary students.

She taught for two years in the small west African country of Burkina Faso and then came back to Japan, where she taught elementary school for a year. Last year, she taught Japanese to students in France.

She discovered she really enjoyed teaching her native language to nonnative speakers, and found out about the teacher exchange program just days before the deadline — enough time to finish her application and get accepted. 

She had to Google "Nebraska" to figure out where it was, but loves it here, she said.

She’s living with a host family for the first few months. They helped her get acclimated and get a car — a 1997 Toyota Camry she drove to work on her own for the first time Friday.

“It makes weird noises,” she said.

She and Cunningham attended a training program in Seattle before the school year. They'll send videos of their classes to the organization headquarters from time to time, will share their experiences with other exchange teams and will get a visit from program officials during the year.

Hiraoka finds American students motivated — and willing to speak up and ask questions, unlike many Japanese students, she said.

She knows it's hard for students — but from her own experience — believes it's beneficial to students that she and Cunningham speak almost exclusively Japanese in class. 

With just a week of school behind them, Cunningham said she’s already able to see the benefits of their co-teaching arrangement.

For one thing, having two teachers allows them to give more individual attention to students.

Cunningham comes from the perspective of a nonnative Japanese speaker, which allows her to anticipate the obstacles students will face, she said. Hiraoka can help students be more precise, can offer writing tricks and tips she learned growing up.

The native Nebraskan has absorbed Japanese culture in her travels, brought back artifacts and ideas to her students — a way to help them see beyond the borders of their state.

“My goal is always to bring the world back to Nebraska for kids who were just like me as a kid,” she said.

It’s one of the reasons the teachers engaged their students in “rock, paper, scissors,” a cultural and hugely popular game in Japan known as "janken poi."

And on Friday, at the front of the classroom, the visiting teacher from Japan was killing it.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or

On Twitter @LJSreist.


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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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