By Terry Keelan
Probably the oldest organization associated with the VJCC, the Gakuen serves its youngest members. Founded nearly 80 years ago, the Venice Gakuen was born of the desire of early Japanese immigrants to instill the Japanese language and culture in their children. A fact almost lost to memory is that the current location of the VJCC was purchased as a joint effort of the Venice Japanese Community Association and the Venice Gakuen.
Once at an enrollment of as many as a hundred students, current enrollment is at 21, but Principal Miri Park hopes to change that. Since her
|appointment a year ago, Park-sensei, with the help of PTA president Mickey Fukunaga, is reinvigorating the program by expanding classes and refocusing the curriculum to teach language through acquisition of culture.|
Park-sensei has vast experience in teaching languages in a cross-cultural setting. Her family operates a language school in her native Japan. She spent seven years as a teaching assistant at UCLA, including two years as an instructor at Asahi Gakuen and she has experience as a cross-cultural instructor at the Berlitz Cross-Cultural Program.
“We are trying teach language in a cultural context,” says Park-sensei. “Language is not only function, but communication.” The goal, she adds, is to create “happy kids, proud of their Japanese background and with cross-cultural understanding.” Instruction at the Gakuen attempts to bring the Japanese language to life by exposing the students to a variety of aspects of Japanese culture. Besides basic drills in hiragana and kanji, the students are also given hands-on introduction to Japanese culture, listening to and using the language in an everyday context. For instance, students practice shuji (calligraphy) and learn not only about the characters they are writing, but their meaning and history, as well as the history of shuji and all the words and phrases that accompany it.
Park-sensei, who is also an ethnomusicologist, has brought in a koto instructor and five kotos (a traditional stringed musical instrument), immersing the students in traditional Japanese music, the language that describes it and giving them hands on experience. Similar instruction comes with origami, singing traditional songs, watching Japanese television and celebrating holidays, including Girl’s Day and Boy’s Day.
The experience needs to be fun for the children, Park-sensei emphasizes, because the Gakuen students are not traditional language students. Students attending a university language class, for instance, are generally placed with students at the same skill level and all of them come with a single goal in mind. Gakuen students, on the other hand, have various skill levels within the same class and different levels of association and interest in Japanese language and culture.
not a babysitting service. Parents are expected to actively
participate both in running the Gakuen, encouraging
their children and participating in the cultural events
sponsored by the school.
As part of its effort to revitalize the program, the Gakuen is promoting two introductory level courses; one for elementary and one for high school students. The high school course is designed to prepare students to earn high school language credit through the California Association of Japanese Language Schools’ language credit test. Nozomi Ohno teaches the elementary level, grades one through six. The Junior High/High School level is taught by Cheiko Nakamura.
One of the most ambitious projects that Park-sensei contemplates is organizing and cataloguing the vast collection of archival material the Gakuen possesses. These include documents of all types, photographs, student work, membership records, official records and correspondence. Some of the photographs date back to the founding of the school. What other treasures are there remains to be discovered.
According to Mickey Fukunaga, the Gakuen is also trying to increase its effectiveness by acquiring additional computers and Internet access, so that students can visit Japanese web sites for language instruction and cultural exchanges. “We could also use a new copy machine,” he adds.
The Venice Gakuen enrolls students from elementary to high school level. Tuition is based on a semester schedule, but is payable monthly. There are moderate fees for textbooks and workbooks. Classes are scheduled every Saturday from 8:30 A.M. to 12:20 P.M. The Fall and Spring semesters generally coincide with the public school schedule, and the Gakuen observes the Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas Holidays. Contact the Gakuen at (310) 822-7781.
by Terry Keelan
Mickey Fukunaga is past co-chair of the Annual Festival and currently serves as President of the PTA for the Venice Gakuen.
His near-term vision of the Community Center is to see increased interest and participation among the younger parents, and by ‘younger’ he means between age 30 and 50!
In the long-term, Mickey hopes to see the Center expand both physically and in membership.