A taste of Japan comes to Cranford

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CRANFORD, NJ — For some of the students in Cranford middle schools and high school, the world got just a little bit smaller, thanks to the Japanese classes of teachers Kristin Wingate and Catherine Fisco. Wingate’s students have been exchanging letters with Japanese students, culminating with a visit to Cranford at the end of March by 31 students from Japan. For Wingate and Fisco, this has been an exchange many years in the making.

The first part of this scholastic adventure began with Toshishige Yamasaki, a sensei, or teacher, at Shuyukan High School in Japan. Founded in 1784, one of the oldest high schools in Japan would go through relocations, remodeling and renamings, finally being renamed Fukuoka Prefectural Shuyukan Senior High School in 1949. An English teacher in Fukuoka, Japan, Yamasaki decided to reach out to schools in the United States, so students studying Japanese here could exchange bilingual letters with students studying English in Japan. Yamasaki has nine partner schools in the U.S. to correspond with his 400 students. One of the partner schools is Cranford High School. This is the first year for Cranford High School to participate in the project.

“I have a profile on epal.com, which links classrooms together, so you can write letters. You can monitor student emails or exchange letters. Yamasaki sensei reached out to me,” said Wingate, in an interview with LocalSource on Monday, March 13. “We’ve only been able to do it three times, so that’s six exchanges. They are on a different schedule so their school ends this month.

“Japanese schools typically go for 240 days. They have a summer of two or three weeks. Yamaski sensei is the polite way of referring to him.”

In addition to teaching Japanese and serving as the advisor to the Japanese Club/Japanese National Honor Society at Cranford High School, Wingate is also the New Jersey Association of Teachers of Japanese Award Ceremony chairperson.

Wingate said she has been interested in the Japanese language since she was in high school herself.

“I learned it ever since I was a senior in high school,” she said. “I studied it for a really long time and I went to grad school at Seton Hall and I thought maybe I want to do this and here I am in my 11th year.”

A big part of her teaching Japanese in Cranford is because of Fisco.

“I started the Japanese program. This is my 20th year,” said Fisco, who teaches Japanese at Hillside Avenue School and Orange Avenue School and is the New Jersey Association of Teachers of Japanese vice president, in an interview with LocalSource on Friday, March 17.

“It was originally only through TV. There was a live feed from Roxbury. Then they dropped their program and they needed a real live person and that’s how I got the job. I majored in Asian studies and lived in Japan for two years and Hawaii for two years.”

This is something both teachers have in common. Although Wingate hasn’t lived in Japan, she said she’s been over there 10 or 11 times.

The duo have another point in common: Seton Hall University.
“I was an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University for a couple of years 18 years ago,” Fisco said.

“It’s all because of her that I’m here,” Wingate said. “I started at the middle school and then we switched. Japanese was the only language that didn’t have a middle school feeder program. And then we switched off.”

“All the other languages started in sixth grade, except for Japanese,” Fisco said. “You couldn’t start until high school, and we said if you want AP level, you need to start earlier. There are three alphabets to learn in Japanese.”

“We have Latin, French, Spanish and Japanese at Cranford High School, Hillside Avenue School and Orange Avenue School,” Wingate said. “We teach separately. Catherine Fisco teaches sixth, seventh and eighth and I take care of the high school.

“I teach grades nine through 12, but we have a middle school program, too. So some go from ninth through 12th grade and others start in middle school and go to their senior year.”

The interest in studying Japanese is strong in Cranford, although it does ebb and flow from year to year.

“My largest class is 23 students and my smallest is 10 students,” Fisco said.

“I’m half Japanese, but I had to go to a Japanese school every Sunday to learn it,” she added. “Both Kristin and I are not native speakers.”

The teachers bring their love of the language to the classes they teach; however, Fisco insists the students themselves have a kind of passion for it as well.

“I think we get a different kind of student, who wants to march to their own beat,” she said. “It’s a great group of kids that we wind up with. We teach them a lot about the culture. We try to foster caring about others. It’s a lot more than just a language. They’re definitely into the culture, too — fashion, anime, martial arts.”

“That’s why it’s so fascinating, because it is so different,” agreed Wingate. “Every time I do culture with my students, they love it. I’m bringing them to Japan this summer and I’ve done that three times in the past. We go for 10 days. We’ve done homestays or a one-day visit to a Japanese class. It’s always such a great experience for my kids, to see a Japanese school.”

COVID-19 delayed taking her students to Japan, and Wingate said she’s thrilled to have the opportunity once again.

“Because of the pandemic, I had to push it off two years, and I was so upset. We’re definitely going this summer,” she said. “Getting to see them experience it for the first time is great. Watching a young person see all the things that I’ve talked about for the last four, five, six or seven years is wonderful.”

Part of that enthusiasm is the culture they study in classes throughout the year.

“The kids have been writing about what they like to do, sports and hobbies and what they did over winter break,” said Wingate. “A lot of my students asked about the Japanese new year, because that’s the most important holiday of the year, Jan. 1.

“Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar, so they celebrate New Year’s on Jan 1.”

Wingate said having students from Japan visit Cranford High School is especially exciting, and she’s looking forward to playing host.

“On March 31, 31 students from Japan are coming here,” she said. “At lunchtime,we’re having the 31 Japanese students here, giving a brief presentation in the library. There will also be about 31 of my students and teachers and principals. Then, in the afternoon, at noon and then at 2 p.m., I have all these games planned out.”

A big part of offering Japanese in Cranford through both the middle schools and the high school is preparation for Advanced Placement exams.

“I teach mostly language and a lot of culture. They all learn how to read and write,” Wingate said. “We have an AP program. Catherine and I work together to get kids to take the AP.”

“We are very close,” she added. “I am so thankful for Catherine.”
Not surprisingly, when teachers work together with their students for so many years, including trips to another country, they can grow very close as well.

“I know some of these kids better than a lot of their best friends do,” Wingate said.

Fisco agreed.

“Over the winter break, I attended one of my student’s weddings,” she said. “She now lives and works in Japan and married a Japanese man and she said this wouldn’t have happened if not for my class.

“Another student reached out to me and said he’s living in Japan now.”

If the two teachers have learned one thing through all their classes and travels, it’s that people are largely the same, wherever they are.

“I taught English for two years when I was in Japan,” Fisco said. “They go through the same things and laugh at the same things. Human nature is human nature.”

Photos Courtesy of Kristin Wingate-Sensei