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Friday, Dec. 7, 2001


Taking centerstage without clamming up

Traditional island lifestyle inspires award-winning 'Clam Princess'


On his first visit to Urato Junior High School a year and a half ago, David Goldberg was awestruck. He was glad that he had followed his predecessor's advice to take a camera along. On the early morning 30-minute ferry ride from Shiogama City in Miyagi Prefecture to the island of Nonoshima, Goldberg found himself snapping pictures, one after another.

The beauty of the Matsushima islands -- comprising Nonoshima and more than 260 other tiny islands -- is renowned in Japan. Together they make up one of the so-called Nihon-sankei (Japan's three most scenic sights).

As Goldberg's boat approached Nonoshima, he could see his new school at the top of the island's only hill. For the next month, he was going to enjoy the expansive view from those school windows alongside Urato Junior High's staff and just 18 students, who come from the four small inhabited islands in the area.

That first trip to Nonoshima marked the beginning of an important period in Goldberg's life.

The 25-year-old Massachusetts native now travels to the island three times a year to teach there during May, November and March. (When he's not on the island, he teaches at two junior high schools in Shiogama City).

"I know that many years from now, after I have returned home, I will have forgotten much of the day-to-day routine of teaching English," Goldberg reflects. "It will be these islands, their people, the school's students and teachers that will stand out in memory."

The memory that will most stand out, perhaps, will be that of "The Clam Princess," a play that Goldberg helped his third-year students create and perform at the first annual Miyagi Prefectural Skit Koshien competition. "Koshien" refers to the baseball stadium outside Osaka where Japan's top high school baseball teams compete for the national championships. Skit Koshien is based on a similar championship scheme, although on a smaller scale. It was introduced by English teacher consultant Motomu Ito to enrich the English teaching program in Miyagi Prefecture.

In early May of this year, Goldberg and Yoko Fujimaki, a Japanese teacher of English, presented the Koshien Skit idea to their seven third-year students and asked them to brainstorm on topics that would be unique to their school. Three students came back a few days later with the idea of doing a clam-digging skit. Every year the school has a clam-digging competition to raise money for school activities, and the students take a lot of pride in the local clamming tradition.

"We all agreed the idea was unique to our school, but some thought it wasn't interesting enough," Goldberg explains. "So they decided to make one of the students a clam princess and to base the skit on the popular television program, 'Quiz Millionaire.' " (known in the West as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?")

Every day in May, Goldberg helped the students with the skit during class time. The students wrote the original in Japanese, Fujimaki translated it into English, then Goldberg edited it. On Saturdays, he made special trips to help with rehearsals. By mid-June, a video of the skit had been made and submitted for the preliminary round of the competition.

"The skit project was a great way for us to inject some extra motivation into the students by using English creatively and in a meaningful way," said Goldberg.

In Sendai, Stephen Hale, chief adviser to assistant language teachers with the Miyagi Board of Education, and one of the judges of the Koshien Skit competition, was impressed.

"It's important for Japanese young people to have pride in their community and its traditions," explains Hale. "Their imaginative effort to portray these themes convinced me at the time that their skit was the best."

"The Clam Princess" was chosen as a finalist, and the students were invited to present their skit before a panel of judges in Sendai. In August, the students arrived to find an auditorium full of several hundred students, parents and teachers from competing schools around the prefecture.

"They were quite nervous," Goldberg explains. "It was a big event for them to go to Sendai."

Not everything went according to plan. One of the students had left the princess's crown back on the island, and then their performance went over the allotted time. After the skit was over and the performers were backstage, they all agreed they didn't do as well as they had during rehearsals. But nevertheless, when the judges announced the winners, a special fourth-place recognition went to "The Clam Princess."

"We had not originally planned to give out any fourth-place award," explains Hale. "But we decided 'The Clam Princess' deserved special recognition."

Goldberg learned afterward that their skit might, in fact, have won, had they kept to their time limit.

"It didn't matter," says Goldberg. "The students thought it was a great experience to perform in English in front of so many people. It gave them the confidence that they can do anything."

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