Nothing says “Thank God it’s Friday” like the sound of the school bell signaling the end of the week and the beginning of the weekend. Doors fly open and students rush out, hoping to savor every moment of their two-day respite. Teachers are often close behind.
A different scene plays out each Friday afternoon at Memorial Middle School in Edinburg. Instead of scurrying out the doors, roughly 25 students head through the door of ELA teacher Robert Ruiz’s classroom. On Friday afternoons, Ruiz’s ELA classroom becomes the home of the Japanese Wildcats, where the students can hardly wait to learn more about this captivating language.
The group started last year. Like many American youth, students in Ruiz’s class couldn’t get enough of Anime and Manga, Japanese animation and comics, respectively. During Sustained Silent Reading, he noticed his students often read Manga and Japanese dictionaries. Ruiz honed in on his students’ enthusiasm and told them he knew some Japanese. His interest in the language began about six years ago while pursuing his undergraduate degree at the University of Texas-Pan American.
“At first, I pursued learning Japanese on my own,” he said, “because UTPA did not offer any courses at the time.” But later, when Ruiz transferred to University of Texas-San Antonio, he had the opportunity to take Japanese courses. From the moment Ruiz spoke Japanese to his students, they were hooked.
“Last year we met three days a week during lunch, but this year we decided to meet after school,” Ruiz said. Their unofficial Japanese lessons evolved into a full-fledged school club thanks to the supportive administrators at the school.
The group often practices pronunciation, but the day I visited in late February, Ruiz decided to introduce five Japanese characters to the students. He used metaphors to help them write the stroke correctly.
“For the second stroke, you go straight down through the middle of the first one. It should look like a Samurai sword. And the last stroke resembles a fish at the end of the Samurai sword,” he told them.
Students leaned over to look at their friends’ characters and then returned to perfect their own, their eyes staring at their papers while their hands moved slowly across, down and then in a near figure-eight.
While the Japanese aficionados wrote, Ruiz pronounced some words formed by putting two characters together and asked them to repeat them. “When you say ‘love’ in Japanese, it sounds like “ah ee,” he said. “So pretend you hit your knee on the side of your desk, AH EE, and you’re really saying, ‘I love you.’” Chuckles echoed throughout the room.
Throughout the lesson, Ruiz reinforced academic language (“Maybe you can help me come up with a mnemonic device to remember this one.”) but without the feel of a structured English lesson.
After the students learned five characters, Ruiz gave them a Japanese spelling test. He asked the Wildcats to volunteer to come forward to write the characters, and hands flew up in the air, the students shouting, “I want to.”
After the test, Ruiz and his Wildcats practiced simple Japanese phrases such as, “I am Raul.”
The entire class identified Fernando Zavala as the best in Japanese. “Since the club started,” Ruiz said, “he hasn’t missed a single meeting.”
Ruiz views the club as a springboard for the future pursuit of Japanese. “I’m merely building the foundation of a language that is one of the most difficult to learn,” he said. “It takes up to ten years of dedicated study to master Japanese. A lot of these students have aspirations of traveling to Japan as exchange students or teachers. I think it’s fantastic that they’re thinking with such a broad scope.”
One such student is Nereida Casas. “I want to live in Japan one day,” she said.
Despite the difficulty of the language, these students are not intimidated. Throughout their one-and-a-half-hour meeting, they remained actively engaged. “Even though Japanese might be one of the hardest languages to learn,” said Emilio Barron, “it is still good to know that if I ever need to introduce myself in Japanese, all I have to say is, “Konichiwa, Watashi wa Emilio san desu.” (Hi. I am Emilio.)
The club is offered for seventh and eighth graders first semester, adding sixth graders second semester. The majority are in eighth grade. Next year, they will go to Economedes High School, and their goal is to convince the administration at Economedes to offer Japanese.
In the meantime, they tell Ruiz they plan to return to Memorial Middle School every Friday to attend the meetings. “We want to take him to high school with us,” said Anna Robles. This is Ruiz’s second year at the school, his fourth year teaching. He is currently working on his master’s in Applied Linguistics and English as a Second Language.
During the week, the Japanese Wildcats go to band and theatre practice and to other extracurricular activities. But on Fridays, they rush to learn Japanese. During their meetings, they can even dress like the characters in the comics they love.
“The Japanese Wildcats are super awesome special,” said Fernando. And based on the crowded classroom, it’s obvious they think their teacher is, too.