Thursday, March 12, 2015

Hannah & Abigail in Japanese Public School!

Background Information

I (Katharine) have a bachelor's degree in early childhood education from Ouachita Baptist University. I taught kindergarten at Spring Valley Elementary in Richardson, Texas for one school year before bringing home my first child, Hannah Kay Elkins, in 2007. I then became a stay at home mom and a mission pastor's wife. We brought home our third child, Josiah, a month before it was time to send Hannah to kindergarten. As a former public school teacher, I was rather apprehensive about sending my own child to a public school but trying to homeschool her with a newborn and a 3 year old at home seemed beyond my abilities. Our neighborhood school ended up being a diamond in the rough and we felt rather privileged to send her to Arapaho Classical Magnet School in Richardson. It was an amazing public school with well seasoned teachers. Hannah excelled in the classroom and was the only child in her class to score perfectly on the academic achievement tests!!
When we decided to move to Japan as missionaries our first step was to sell our quaint little home on Magnolia Dr. and move into a Dallas apartment in a rather "unfavorable" school zone.  We decided that I would homeschool Hannah for her 1st grade school year during our season of fundraising. We were apart of a wonderful Classical Conversations community with lots of amazing homeschooling families that taught me so much about the beauty of homeschooling. 
My new sweet homeschool momma's rallied around me and prayed over our family as we struggled with what to do when we moved to Japan.  Japanese public school, expensive English private schools, or homeschooling were our options. There are long lists of positives and negatives for each choice and it was something that we sought a lot of prayer about within our church and homeschool communities. We prayed for wisdom, clarity, and direction. We also knew/know that each child is unique and what might be best for Hannah may not be best for Abigail- they both learn in completely different ways. We prepared to homeschool as that would always be the default if the other options didn't work out but it would also be something that we'd have to do in the afternoons if they were able to attend Japanese public school during the day. Through much prayer and with hesitation on my part- we felt led towards pursuing Japanese public school- which we were told would be difficult bordering impossible for foreigners to attend. So, we asked for favor concerning this situation and many of you prayed for the Principal of our future neighborhood elementary school- that he would be kind and accepting of foreigners.  It wasn't an easy decision for us to make as we knew the spiritual, mental, and emotional ramifications that would arise from dropping our sweet, innocent English speaking daughters into the deep end of the pool of Japanese public school. Many of you followed our journey of what happened when we arrived in Japan and visited our local elementary school. The Lord graciously answered our prayers and provided above and beyond what we had asked of Him. You can read more about it here and here

We knew that it was going to be difficult school year. But, we are learning that just because things are difficult doesn't mean that we have to avoid them. 

So, here we are... at the end of the 2014-2015 school year in Japan. It has been about as difficult as we had imagined it would be and there were many days in which I was ready to withdraw them. And there were many days in which we were pleasantly surprised with their spiritual and emotional growth and language progress. Here's a peek into their brave and courageous lives... 

Hannah Kay- 7 years old

I send her out the door five days a week to walk to and from school with a group of 7-9 year olds. She then swims against language & cultural obstacles for 7 hours a day. She must fight back the anxiety & fear that rises within her {on a daily basis} in order to survive {and one day thrive} in the midst of her circumstances. She perseveres through adversity so that "the Japanese will know & love Jesus just like I do". 
She is a light in a dark place. 
She is a brave little warrior. 
She is a missionary.
She struggles with learning the language through complete immersion but it doesn't steal her joy. She rejoices in small triumphs- as we all should. She is really smart and is excelling in math- the one subject that needs no translation! 
Her favorite subject of all is Art! Her creativity is praised by her classmates and her teacher. 
She receives excellent reports that are already translated by Saito Sensei for us. She is known for her happiness, eagerness, and her helpfulness. 
I was able to attend Parent's Observation Day at her school. Here's a peek into Hannah's 1st grade classroom. Ichikawa Sensei is a wonderful teacher & Saito Sensei (who is kneeling by Hannah's side in the above picture) is so helpful to translate things for Hannah, when she is available. I didn't understand a word her teacher said & I can't imagine having to deal with that kind of stress everyday. But, Hannah has perseverance that is building character & hope. She's pretty amazing.
These are her classmates! They, for the most part, have been very kind and accepting of Hannah. There were only a few instances in which we had to deal with some situations that caused Hannah a lot of grief. We didn't keep quiet about it though (which is the cultural norm) and the problems were solved the next day which was so helpful for her continued success in the classroom. 
She really is so happy to learn Japanese. She is trying so hard & practices everyday. I know very few 7 year olds that persevere through the struggle of learning a second language with the joy that Hannah exhibits. 
During Parent Observation Day I took a few minutes to stand in her empty classroom so that I could pray for Hannah's classmates & teachers- and for my beautiful courageous daughter. I felt so proud of her and I know that so many of you do as well. She has grown so much over the last 9 months and her strength and determination to learn is unmatched in a child her age. 
Cross cultural friendships are beautiful. These sweet girls have overcome language barriers in order to teach Hannah how to ride a unicycle, play traditional Japanese hand games, & conquer all the monkey bars on the playground. They brighten her day & I'm so thankful.
A few weeks ago I went to the First Grade Talent Show and discovered that Hannah has somehow managed to master the unicycle over the last few months during their short break times at school! I had never seen her ride one and I was so shocked! She just learned how to ride a bicycle without training wheels back in October!! We are extremely impressed! You can watch the video on my Facebook page here.

Abigail Nicole- 5 years old

She has a heart of gold & her beauty increases by the minute. I look at her and I'm just blown away. I constantly praise God for blessing us with this sweet, talented, compassionate, and joyful daughter. Her laughter is contagious & her personality fills up a room! She is something else!
This sweet curly redhead stands out like a bright light in the dark. She brings so much happiness to everyone that she meets. People stop us to take their picture with her & even grumpy old men light up & say "kuwaii" with big grins when she bops around the corner. She sings songs in Japanese everywhere we go which just makes everyone's day! 
Abigail is such a social butterfly. She thrives in social settings and she has done really well in her school. You can read more about how we found Nagoya Christian Kindergarten here. She is the only girl in a class of 17 boys which was quite a bummer at first but she quickly came to love her "boyfriends".  They let her play soccer with them and they protect her from getting hurt by the ball. They are really sweet and absolutely adorable!! She does have several "girlfriends" in the other two classes that she gets plenty of time to play with but she would absolutely love to have a girl in her class and we are praying for one to come along.  

My friend, Naoko, took several pictures for me at the "Mochi Festival" a few weeks ago. She captured this beautiful image of Abigail jumping with delight surrounded by her "boyfriends". I love this photo and I will always treasure it. It really captures Abigail's joy and personality.
This is Abigail's teacher, Matsui Sensei. Abigail absolutely adores her and so do we- she has done an amazing job teaching Abigail Japanese and helping her to transition to life in Japanese kindergarten school. She has shown so much patience and kindness towards Abigail as she has adjusted to her new surroundings and struggles with the language barriers. 

Her entire kindergarten gathers outside every morning to dance and exercise! Once a month I get to bring Josiah to "Waku Waku Kai" which is a playtime for younger siblings. We get to watch the "big kids" do their dances and it is absolutely adorable! I'm always so impressed at how well Abigail picks up the songs in Japanese and how cute they all are when they dance! 
Abigail isn't speaking much Japanese yet but she understands a lot! She is able to follow directions that her teacher gives her in Japanese and she can sing all the songs. We love watching her bloom and grow in this new setting that was so foreign. She is drinking Japanese tea and eating fish and vegetables- these are things that made her "throw up" at the beginning of the year! She's come along way the last several months!! 
Her school is primarily a "social play" kindergarten so the emphasis is more on the Arts. Which just so happens to be Abigail's cup of tea! There are programs throughout the year as well as a lot of art projects! The picture above is from the Spring Music Program in which Abigail's class performed a traditional Japanese play. It was really cute and we were so impressed at how well she spoke her lines in Japanese!

The Elkins' HomeSchool AfterSchool Program

These girls come home to the Elkins' HomeSchool AfterSchool Program after their long days of struggling to learn a new language! I don't actually call it that but that's essentially what it is... English homeschool after Japanese school. We slowly eased into this once they got into a rhythm at their new schools. I didn't want to completely overwhelm them so we just do one subject a day (Math on Mondays, Japanese tutoring on Tuesdays, Grammar on Wednesdays, Spelling and Phonics on Thursdays, and Reading on Fridays). It only takes about an hour each day but even that is really hard for all of us to manage especially since Hannah still has to complete her Japanese homework everyday. In December I had an "emotional breakdown" over all of this education stuff. I can't convey to you how difficult it was/is but it literally pushed me over the edge.  My friend told me about a private bilingual school that she was interested in that would essentially be the answer to all our problems... so we began to look into it. I wrote this on Facebook back in January...

"I am barely able to manage their English education at home. We are all carrying a lot of stress from our long days of battling language & cultural barriers. We have been diligently praying about what to do for these girls next school year- which begins in April. A friend directed us to a bilingual private school... If we pursue this option, both girls will be educated in English & Japanese!! This is an incredible opportunity & we are eager to pursue it... but this will mean that we have to raise more financial support. We serve a God who has always answered our prayers in big ways & we do not doubt that He will provide exactly what we need to care for our children's needs. Will you pray with us about this big decision? It is a really important one and we need lots of clarity & wisdom."

After several visits to the school and lots of prayers we realized that this particular school wasn't the best fit for our girls but more importantly we realized that Hannah and Abigail are exactly where they are supposed to be- in Japanese public school. I really wrestled with God about this because it is all so out of my realm of control. I want so badly to be able to be there- to protect, nurture, guide, or help them when they are confused, scared, bullied, or lonely. As a mother in a foreign land where I am not able to learn the language fast enough to help my kids the way I should- it is frustrating and it is really, really hard! We are all struggling and I desperately wanted to find the easy road but God had made it clear that this just wasn't the place for our family.  And then, just to test our faith, the private bilingual school offered us an incredible discount (practically free tuition) in order to entice us to attend which made the decision even more difficult!! I had to get away to a quiet place to pray about the whole big ordeal and that's when I heard that still small voice whisper "surrender" to me. I wrote this on my Facebook that day...

"Over and over again God calls me to surrender. When life is challenging & situations aren't ideal- it's natural to look for a way out. A way to overcome the obstacle without actually having to go through it. When we put these beautiful girls into Japanese public school we knew that it would be a challenge. We knew that it would bring tears & that we would have to watch them struggle. We knew that it would be an extra work load for all of us to do homeschool after their long days in school. We accepted this challenge with determination. BUT, when progress is slow & the road ahead is long, it's tempting to quit. We tried to find a way out... We prayed for a way out. BUT God!! His ways are higher than our ways... And He closed the doors I was trying to open. And then he whispered that word, surrender, to me. I cried because it will be hard. The girls will remain in their Japanese schools & I will continue to homeschool them in the afternoons. Thank you to everyone who prayed for this situation! I thought God was going to provide a way out but instead He is going to give me the strength to endure... and yet again, teach me to surrender." 

And now, a month later, I am so thankful that I prayed, listened, and obeyed what God put on my heart.  We have seen incredible progress in both girls over the last month! Hannah is becoming more independent from her translator everyday as she is now able to follow along and complete her assignments without her help. That is a huge answer to our prayers!

And in order to help the girls in their schools I have changed my tutoring sessions with Keiko to include learning school words, schedules, and important Kanji in order to read their calendars! I want to do everything I can to support them as they continue this journey of swimming in the deep end of the Japanese public school pool! Complete immersion is hard and the road is long but when you finally start to see the fruit of their labor- it is so very sweet and satisfying! Hannah & Abigail will be fluent in another language which is just the most amazing tool that we can give them. It will provide them with rich opportunities and experiences. 

Thank you so much to everyone for your prayers, encouragement, and support as you follow our journey in Japan. It is really hard to put life into words on a blogpost but I hope that this gives you a glimpse into the lives our beautiful girls. We would be so grateful if you would join us in praying for them as they move into the next grade level starting April 7th at their schools. Abigail will enter her final year of Japanese kindergarten and Hannah will enter 2nd grade at Chihaya Elementary School. 

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