Tony Cassidy, citizenship coordinator at Kirk Hallam Community Technology College, Derbyshire describes the benefits of a Japanese exchange programme.

The fifth annual Derbyshire-Toyota exchange took place in November 2005. It marked the collaboration between six schools in south-east Derbyshire. The region has close ties with the city of Toyota through the Toyota car factory in Burnaston. This article explains how students, teachers, families and the wider community benefited from the exchange programme coordinated by Helen Gilhooly at Aldercar Language College and led by Morag Thorne at Kirk Hallam Community Technology College.

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The exchange:

  • provided a real lesson in active citizenship
  • helped to break down cultural barriers and stereotypes
  • developed international awareness
  • promoted a sense of shared values
  • raised personal life goals.

Student ownership of the exchange process involved:

  • pledging to host Japanese counterparts
  • developing shared activities and events for Japanese home-stay students
  • attending Japanese lessons after school
  • fundraising on behalf of the whole group
  • arranging an official thank you ceremony for Japanese hosts
  • maintaining self-support groups during the Japan home stay.

Hosting Japanese students in Derbyshire

The first part of the exchange involved the hosting of Japanese teachers and students. This not only had a beneficial impact on the Derbyshire students but also their families and wider school community. The schools involved in the exchange are located within mainly ex-mining towns which are predominantly white and working class. It was often the case that students had little contact with other ethnic groups. The hosting of Japanese students was the first stage of developing relationships that crossed this ethnic divide. Students and families began to explore the differences in social etiquette and cultural heritage between the two countries. The hosting of teachers and students at each of the schools extended the impact of the exchange and their arrival created a positive buzz around the school community. For the Japanese students it offered an occasion to experience school life. For teachers it was an opportunity to compare educational practice with foreign counterparts, try out teaching strategies for students with additional languages, and have real life experts, in the case of geography, within the classroom.

Being guests in Japan

To spread the benefits of the exchange students stayed with different host families. For some students this was their first visit abroad. The experience exceeded many of their expectations. The first part of the visit involved sightseeing in the region around Kyoto. Students sampled the delights of Japanese food and culture. They stayed in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese guest house) in order to become acquainted with Japanese life before their home stay.

 Students experienced the religious diversity of Japanese culture by visiting the shrines of Kiyomizu-dera at Kyoto and Todaiji at Nara. But the most significant moment of our sightseeing was the visit to Hiroshima. For students and teachers alike the Peace Dome allowed time to reflect on the atomic bombing of the city and whether the attack was justified. It made everyone think about the implications of any future use of nuclear weapons, the progress of Japan to a modern constitutional monarchy and whether war can ever be justified.

Towards the end of the first week of the exchange students met their host families in Toyota. As a teacher I was apprehensive about staying in the home of a family unknown to me but I was highly surprised by the adaptability of the students. On reflection, there is no better way to experience a country. Both students and teachers were made to feel part of the extended family that dominates Japanese home life. Students were placed in families whose siblings attended three different schools. They were expected to take a full part in their school life from lessons to extra-curricular activities. It was an authentic taste of Japanese life. It was heartening to see students grow in confidence. The relationships they developed during their short stay were deep. The final goodbyes were emotional and heartfelt. One aspect of the exchange that is hard to measure in educational terms is how the life expectations of students were changed. Students began to re-evaluate their life goals, in many cases, raising their own standards of what they wished to achieve in life.

Changing perspectives

From the outset of our Japanese journey it was clear that this was not the Japan I had previously taught about. As a professional it was an opportunity to learn about real Japanese life and culture, irrespective of images and stereotypes portrayed in the media. The progressive nature of Japanese education, the vast disparities in wealth, and the traditional role of women in society, all provided insights that will become part of my new teaching repertoire. But for teachers and students it was the opportunity to reassess our own cultural heritage and ask ‘what makes us who we are?’.

The development of an exchange programme and subsequent maintenance is a difficult and time-consuming process but the benefits to all parties involved is invaluable. The raising of student expectations, the development of long and lasting relationships and the debunking of national stereotypes are all part of the process of realising that, although our culture and heritage are different, we fundamentally share the same human values.

The exchange doesn’t end with the visit – afterwards students have to:

  • share their experiences through newsletters and assemblies
  • develop long term friendships via letter and email
  • continue studying Japanese to examination level
  • host future Japanese students
  • recruit new students for return visits.

Tony Cassidy is citizenship coordinator at Kirk Hallam Community Technology College, Ilkeston, Derbyshire His website is My World is a Geography World