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March 2, 2011

Columbia International School broadens its mission to create citizens for the 21st century

Creating an environment for learning


Staff writer

Aki Matsushima has been teaching Japanese at the Columbia International School in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, since March 2008, when she returned to Japan after studying in the United States for seven years.

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Elementary Program Aki Matsushima

Born in neighboring Tochigi Prefecture, Matsushima attended local public schools. Pen pals from many countries around the globe opened windows to the world for her. She enjoyed exchanging letters and came to think about studying abroad when she was a junior high school student.

"However, I had no confidence in being able to study abroad," she said. "So while I was looking for a place in Japan where I could learn English, I happened upon a magazine article on CIS."

Established in 1988, CIS provides a Western-style international education for all students from grades 1 through 12, based on the curriculum of the province of Ontario, Canada.

Barrie McCliggott, the principal of CIS since 2003, joined the school as a teacher in 1995.

"He was my teacher when I studied here," said a smiling Matsushima, who spent one year in the senior high school program.

Matsushima decided to enroll at CIS to brush up her English skills and further develop her learning skills so that she would be successful when she went abroad to study.

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Principal Barrie Mccliggott

McCliggott said, "In the beginning, CIS offered only a senior high school program that helped bridge the gap between the Asian and Japanese education systems, preparing students for studying abroad. The majority of our students were Japanese. Our mission today is to open the doors of opportunities and to provide avenues for all children living in Japan to study at universities in Western countries."

After one year at CIS, Matsushima passed an exam to attend a high school in Seattle and then attended universities in Arizona and Texas.

Now with the doors to the world open it took a while for her to discover that education was what she really wanted to study. She took a teacher-training course, gaining practical experience in an elementary school in Texas.

"It was not easy for me to teach native English-speaking children using my second language, but it gave me a sense of accomplishment," Matsushima said.

She obtained a teaching diploma, but getting a diploma and working in the U.S. were two different things.

"It was difficult to get a work visa at that time," Matsushima said.

She decided to return home and found a job at CIS through its website to teach Japanese at her alma mater.

All elementary students at CIS take one Japanese language class every day. The classes are conducted in Japanese, but some personal coaching in English is sometimes needed for returnees and other students, Matsushima said.

The majority of the students at CIS are born and raised in Japan, so it is important for them to learn Japanese as they live in the Japanese community, Matsushima said.

Within the CIS curriculum, all other subjects are taught in English, including the history and geography of Canada and Japan.

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Educators: Aki Matsushima (left) teaches Japanese language at her alma mater the Columbia International School, where she was a pupil of Barrie McCliggott, the current principal.

"It is interesting to observe my foreign colleague's method of teaching the names of Japanese prefectures by singing them in a rhythm," Matsushima said. "My colleagues also occasionally ask me questions about Japan."

For McCliggott, as the enrollment, now 270 students, continues to grow, the mission of CIS has also broadened.

"Our student-centered approach develops global citizens fully prepared with the learning skills and international mind-sets required to live and to be successful in the 21st century, where people are comfortable living and working in many different countries," McCliggott said.

"The Japanese public education system is based on a compliance model in which the teacher is the source of knowledge. But in an environment where our knowledge base is increasing and changing so quickly, it is the development of learning skills that is important," McCliggott said. "In our school, I'm not giving you my knowledge. It's your learning that is most important. We are creating an atmosphere and environment where you can access knowledge and develop your learning skills. For this purpose, teachers need to be flexible and need to value the many different backgrounds and experiences of the students."

Matsushima's own background has helped her succeed at CIS.

"If I had stayed in the U.S., I might have gotten a job as a Japanese teacher for Japanese-American children," Matsushima said. "In this context, teaching Japanese in an international school in Japan was a possibility.

"True, it is different from teaching in English, which I dreamed about, but what is common is 'teaching.' The only difference is language," Matsushima said. "And I really feel that my experience as a student in the U.S. is deepened here in Japan."

For more information on CIS, visit the school's website:

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