Education

Fayette schools ramp up foreign language studies in earliest grades

Japanese instructor Miko Momozono concluded one of her lessons at Picadome Elementary by singing, in Japanese, a "lost kitten story" song. Among those singing along were Nicolas Russell, 7, right, and Rachel Ha (wearing stripes), 6. Momozono teaches in each kindergarten through third-grade class for 20 minutes a day.
Japanese instructor Miko Momozono concluded one of her lessons at Picadome Elementary by singing, in Japanese, a "lost kitten story" song. Among those singing along were Nicolas Russell, 7, right, and Rachel Ha (wearing stripes), 6. Momozono teaches in each kindergarten through third-grade class for 20 minutes a day.

It's before the long holiday break, and Miko Momozono is charming a difficult-to-captivate class of second-graders at Picadome Elementary, not with a story or a movie, but with the simple act of counting. In Japanese.

She holds up the letters in Kanji characters and waits to pick from the frantic forest of waving hands of kids who want to answer.

She speaks to them only in Japanese, and they clearly understand her. Since they were in kindergarten, they've been taking 20 minutes a day of Japanese as part of Fayette County's growing foreign language programs.

It's grown so much that children in 21 elementary schools now have foreign language instruction of some kind. It's part of the district's emphasis on getting languages to children when it's easiest for them to learn.

"We know there is a window when children are most open to picking up different languages," says Alicia Vinson, Fayette County's language coordinator. "That is what we're trying to do here — open their minds to a different language and a different culture."

The longtime Spanish immersion program at Maxwell Elementary has been expanded to Liberty Elementary. In addition, thanks to federal grants and some allocations from the school board, 12 elementary schools have added some instruction in either Spanish, French, Chinese or Japanese. Three middle schools have added programs this year alone. Five middle schools offer Chinese, which has also been added to some of the high school's language programs.

School councils can decide how to implement the instruction, but Vinson said the Picadome model is working well.

In 2007, Picadome hired one teacher to start teaching Japanese to kindergarten students. Each year, they've added a grade. Now Momozono is teaching third-graders who are starting their fourth year of Japanese. She teaches all students for 20 minutes a day, which makes for some hurried times pushing her wheeled easel from class to class. But Principal Daria Sims says that keeps the language fresher than if students had class once a week.

"We can see such a big difference," Sims said.

Momozono also gives brief Japanese lessons to Picadome's teachers at their faculty meetings.

The push has come most of all from Superintendent Stu Silberman, who first started making waves as an educator more than a decade ago in Daviess County, when he mandated Spanish classes at all 12 elementary schools.

He based the decision on brain research, which showed that exposure to art, music and foreign language in the early years created better pathways for other kinds of learning, too.

When he moved to Fayette County in 2004, the emphasis on languages came along.

"It's a critical piece for overall brain development," Silberman said. "We've moved into so much more of a global society that having that second and third language is a great advantage to our kids."

Fayette is working with the University of Kentucky's Confucius Institute on the now extensive Chinese instruction.

"The feedback from families is very, very strong, also," Silberman said. "It's about schools doing the right things for kids. I would love to see every single student starting off working on a second language."

Back at Picadome, second-grade teacher Erin Porter likes the quick daily immersion into Japanese. She also likes Momozono's emphasis on Japanese life.

"What I love is that Miko really emphasizes the culture," Porter said. "As a teacher who wants her students to have more of an open mind, it's nice for them to hear there's another way of doing things."

Porter also says that because Momozono rarely breaks out of Japanese, the children have to work harder.

"They have to focus on what she's doing, and plug some things together to figure out what she's saying," Porter said.

Her students seem to enjoy it. Second-grader Anne Jeong, who is Korean, says she really likes her Japanese and wants to learn other languages.

"I like learning about all the things they do there," Jeong said. "It's fun."

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