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Great Falls Goes Japanese

First and third graders at Great Falls Elementary participate in the school's Japanese Immersion program.

Last Thursday morning, there was the pervasive scent of cooked rice in Mamiya Sahara Worland's classroom at Great Falls Elementary. Members of the Tokyo Woman's Club of Washington milled around as they started the process of making mochi, a rice cake that is a typical dish served during the celebration of the Japanese New Year.

"Mochi is not hard to make," said Yoko Quinn, a member of the Tokyo Woman's Club who also happens to be the mother of a student at Great Falls Elementary.

The Tokyo Woman's Club of Washington has been coming to Sahara's class for over a decade.

"They are a wonderful support group," said Sahara, or "Sahara Sensei" as she is called by students and parents. "We have different activities and they volunteer to do cultural support and language support. They come in here regularly."

Sahara Sensei is the Japanese Immersion teacher at Great Falls Elementary. As such, she teaches first and third graders about every aspect of Japanese culture. As part of her curriculum, students produce and participate in a Japanese performance that is put on in front of the entire school. Sahara changes the theme and type of performance from year to year in an effort to keep it relevant.

"I've been doing it since 1989," said Sahara. "It's a great opportunity for children to use the Japanese they have learned, plus it is a reinforcement of the language and the culture."

According to Sahara, her students are always eager to learn and seem to have no difficulty getting a grasp on the Japanese language.

"The kids are just totally into it, and they immerse themselves and really enjoy it," she said.

THIS YEAR, SAHARA USED A JAPANESE CHILDREN'S STORY that tells the tale of a farmer and his family enlisting the support of various animals to help pull a giant radish from his lawn. Sahara chose the book because it enabled her to incorporate the various Asian zodiac animals into the play.

In addition to performing in front of the school, Sahara's third grade students also took a trip to the Pentagon where they performed their play as part of the Defense Language Office's "Lifetime of Language Learning" program.

"It was a tremendous privilege and Great Falls Elementary was the only school asked to participate in the foreign language program at the Pentagon," said Jean Sammarco, who has a daughter in the third grade at Great Falls Elementary. "There were at least 200 people at this event from all branches of the military, and they gave our children an ovation."

Sahara says that the Pentagon performance was "a great opportunity for the children to realize the appreciation for what they are learning."

"The children were all there, and there were many dignitaries sitting there and watching us, and after the performance they came and shook hands with the children," said Sahara. "So they see that they influence the school and the entire community."