When English teacher and literacy specialist Mari Sawa began teaching at Earth Eight School, Okayama, Japan, she was given the opportunity to create a literacy program focused on developing critical thinking skills and widening her students’ and their families’ worldviews. She feared as a technologically advanced country Japanese people have become “thumb tribes” where games, apps, and texting are the dominant entertainment, children are reading less and increasingly reliant on being provided with answers by adults rather than taking responsibility for their own actions. Which is why her methods focus on a family-school partnership vital in early childhood, empowering parents to take an active role in their child’s education, feeding information to the teachers on how to get the best out of their child and assisting in their reading and vocabulary development at home. During open hours at the school, parents can come in for a book club, English lesson, improvisation class, yoga class, coffee and homemade toy class, all run by classroom teachers with expertise in these areas, all helping forge strong links between the school and the student families.
Mari’s students who have been trained to be inquisitive and critical at a young age continue to develop these skills as they go into elementary school. Her early childhood youngsters, compared to local primary students not going through the literacy program, have greater concentration levels on thinking through problems and providing opinions, holding discussions among themselves and coming to conclusions without adult intervention, whereas other students look expectantly at their teacher’s face waiting for an answer. Mari believes the skills to think independently and critically are vital in this global and highly-technological era.
One of her greatest successes is introducing a study abroad trip that enables kindergartners and their families to travel to the United States for a week. Mari, who went to college at Arkansas in the U.S., believes attending an American school for a week allows students to experience English as a living language. For many of these family members, it is also their first opportunity to travel abroad and Mari sees it as a way for the parents being able to experience globalism and see the possibility of their children living in a bigger world in the future.
Along with her work as a literacy specialist, Mari is a kindergarten teacher, after-school program director, parent education director, and staff education director for Earth8ight. Last year she began studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to earn a master’s degree through the Human Development and Psychology program. As the head of English education at her school, one of her biggest roles is to organize professional development for other teachers. Earlier this year she was named as one of the International Literacy Association’s “30 Under 30” for her work with early literacy education and the involvement of the family, gaining the chance to correspond with other nominees around the globe and discuss the future of literacy education, sparking great interest by international educators on how to pursue family involvement through the model Mari implemented at her school.