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Interview with Helene Uchida

helene_uchida.gifHelene Uchida is the founder of the Little America schools and has been an educator, both in Japan and around the world, for more than twenty years.

Helene Uchida graciously accepted our request for an interview in mid-June, 2002. She spoke with ELT News editor Mark McBennett.



ELTNEWS
Many people are surprised when I tell them I've been in Japan for thirteen years. But you've been here much longer than that. Can you give us a bit of background information about yourself and how you ended up in Japan?
Helene
I came to Japan to study judo. My original plan was to stay here two years. But at Waseda university, as fate would have it, I fell in love with my judo teacher, Sohei Uchida. We were married in the Waseda dojo because we felt the judo dojo was our true "Nakodo." After that we went to Athens, Greece, where my husband taught judo for a year. We were blessed with our son, Soshi, in Athens. We returned to Japan 23 years ago upon receiving word of my father-in-law's death. My husband had to return to Fukuoka to continue his father's judo dojo. Upon our arrival in Fukuoka, he to his hometown and me to a new city, our life together in Japan truly began.
ELTNEWS
When, why and how did you set up the Little America English Schools?
Helene
helene_kids.jpgIn 1979, upon our return from Greece, three judo students' mothers asked me to teach English to their children. I was quite hesitant about it because I had an infant son to care for in a foreign country and, frankly speaking, I had no experience and zero confidence about teaching children. I initially declined their requests, but the mothers kept pushing and I finally agreed to give it a try. Since the students were so excited and animated, I enjoyed it much more than I had imagined. Word got out that the classes were popular and eventually enrollment increased. When we reached 110, we decided to rent a building and officially open a school. That was when we decided upon the name Little America.
ELTNEWS
What teaching approaches do you take at Little America?
Helene
This is my favorite question because this is what we are all about. When I initially studied judo from my husband, he told me, "You can't do judo alone; you need a partner." He also said that since one cannot do judo alone, one must respect one's partner. In essence, because one has a partner, one can do judo. If one's partner is stronger, then one learns from the partner. If one's partner is weaker, then the stronger partner helps the weaker one. This was a revelation for me because I had always been a very independent person; I had never really thought much about partnership or "give and take." This philosophy changed my life in terms of my adaptation to judo (I became a blackbelt), my international marriage and my English teaching in Japan.

My students cannot speak English alone; they need a partner. So our curriculum, classes and lessons are all geared to interaction between two people. Just like judo, our classes encourage constant practice, warm-ups, trial and error challenges, question and answer scenarios between partners. We believe in orchestrating activities whereby our students can experience English with each other. Even though we don't say it directly, our students know inherently that their partners deserve respect, namely because they could not do any of these fun activities alone.
ELTNEWS
You have experience working in education in the US and Greece as well as Japan. What kind of contrasts and similarities have you found?
Helene
In the States, during one school year, we could cover the short story, the novel, drama, speech, grammar, spelling, vocabulary, poetry, etc. Along the way, we made countless discoveries about each other and life. Teaching English, through literature and communication, was a wonderful way to connect with students. I bonded with many of my students and am still in touch with several of them today.

Teaching English as a second language in Greece was invigorating because Europeans are aggressive about speaking English and eager to learn. I was amazed at how quickly people picked up English there and put it to use right away. Even children and uneducated people could speak English with little effort.

Teaching English as a foreign language in Japan is very challenging. It took me some years to realize that the techniques I used in America with native speakers and the methods I used in Greece with highly motivated students did not work in Japan. Therefore, I spent a few years creating lessons based on trial and error in order to study my students' reactions in my quest to find out what worked best for them. Now that I have mastered my trade, I can truthfully say I adore my students and love my work. I owe any success that I have achieved in Japan to my students, for they have been my true mentors.
ELTNEWS
Do you prefer teaching children or university students?
Helene
I'll take children any day of the week. The rewards are immediate because of their ability to learn quickly and laugh at their own mistakes.
ELTNEWS
Some time ago on this site, you talked about how politicians have the power, teachers the purpose and students the promise for real, positive change. You called for educators to get involved in educational reform efforts at national and local levels. What kind of response did you get?
Helene
This, too, I learned from my husband who is now an assemblyman for Fukuoka ken. Prior to his becoming an politician, we were really limited in our efforts to have a positive effect on English education in Japan. We used JALT, other teaching groups, Kinokuniya and Maruzen as a springboard to connect with teachers. But we felt we had to move beyond teachers and the retail industry to the media, the government and people from the private sector who were concerned about the status of English education in Japan. As everyone knows, any good program needs a budget, so we started to get bold.

My husband met with the Board of Education in Fukuoka I visited the then Minister of Education, Akito Arima, in Tokyo in 2000 to give him my ideas. We met with the mayor and governor in Fukuoka. We pushed for change, for a budget, for a pilot program here in Fukuoka, and we were able to succeed. Our pilot program (which is one small step in the right direction) is at a local elementary school and is in its second year. School principals, other teachers, university students and interested parents are constantly coming to observe.

We were also fortunate enough to get media exposure, and the pilot program has earned 6 minutes of news exposure three times with three different stations here in Fukuoka. We are taking these first steps and experiencing success little by little. We will be going to the national government with a report about the pilot program here, along with questionnaires answered by parents at the pilot school. We will also take videos of the news reports and try our best to motivate the national governemnt to become more serious about English education in elementary schools.

I encourage others to do the same in their own towns in their own way.
ELTNEWS
How do you feel about the current government's efforts to change/improve the English educational system?
Helene
I feel it is time to make major changes. Our cherished students have the intelligence and ability to speak English if they are taught early in a communicative, interactive way. Older students are suffering from the repercussions of a system that is a waste of money and time. We have to protect our younger students by creating a better system in elementary school so they do not have to suffer like their "sempais."
ELTNEWS
What, if any, changes have you noticed in your students in the short time since the introduction of the new national curriculum?
Helene
It is too soon to see any changes on a big scale. But I do see enthusiasm and a positive attitude on the part of the students in my pilot program. I think most of these students are not going to a private English school, so they are really surprised and happy to be able to learn English. They had no idea it would be such a pleasant experience.
ELTNEWS
Much has been made of the increasing lack of discipline among Japanese students. How do you use the unique atmosphere of an English classroom to tackle this problem?
Helene
I have never had any discipline problems in my teaching career (from New York to Tokyo to Athens to Fukuoka) because I make the rules really clear from the first day of class. The first day is key because that is the day the students size up the teacher and determine what their limits are or how far they can go.

In addition, all my teaching is based on mutual respect. I respect the students; they reflect their respect back to me. This mutual respect generates in such a manner that students respect their classmates; they respect the subject, English, and in the long-run, they respect themselves. I believe treating the students with respect is therefore a win-win situation for any teacher teaching any subject.

Respect breeds good manners, and when good manners prevail in a classroom, there is no space for discipline problems.
ELTNEWS
On a personal note, as the parent of a young Irish-Japanese child, I'm interested to hear your views on the challenges facing bilingual, or rather bicultural, children in Japan.
Helene
I can only speak from my own experiences.

Upon our arrival in Fukuoka (from Greece) with an infant in my care, I decided the first thing I would give my son was love and the second would be language. I have spoken only English to him from his birth until today. I knew I would be his main English source here, and I never deviated from giving him the English flow from within me, even when we were in Japanese social situations where we stood out and looked different because I spoke English to him.

In addition, I hung an America flag in his room the moment I set up house in Fukuoka. I wanted him to be proud of having two nationalities, two cultures, two homelands, two ways of viewing life.

As a result, he was never bullied at school or ostracized. If anything, because of his confidence and pride in being bi-cultural and bilingual, he was like a magnet that attracted other kids.

This was our scenario. I believe each family has its own, but I highly enourage you to shower your child with love first and English second and to also plant the seeds of bicultural pride and confidence because these blessed "double" children are very precious and could be the movers-shakers of Japan's future.
ELTNEWS
Are you still running the LATEM seminars? Can you tell us more about them?
Helene
Yes, our LATEM (Little America Teaching Engish Methods) Seminars are in their 8th year.

At these seminars, we spend an intense, full day sharing with teachers the LATEM principles, methods, activities, games and lessons which enable students to experience English in a positive and communicative way. We also show videos of Little America students in action and videos of the Fukuoka pilot program. All LATEM attendees receive a certificate. I am happy to report that we have teachers who come back year after year to these seminars because they benefit from our support and feel invigorated when they return to the classroom.
ELTNEWS
Helene, thank you very much for your time.
Helene
It was my pleasure, almost therapeutic for me because I very seldom have the luxury of talking about myself. Thank you for this chance.



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Comments

I am a freshman at FWU. I am glad to take Mrs.Uchida's lesson now. I have great respect for her. I want to do my best not to waste this opportunity.


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