Mari Sawa reading to children in her classroom
Photo: Courtesy of Mari Sawa
When bilingual educator and reading specialist Mari Sawa began developing programs for her school, Earth Eight, in Okayama, Japan, she had a unique challenge before her. There was no curriculum, no classroom, and no students.
"Starting up a school or an early childhood center is difficult," says Sawa, who, though originally from Japan, hadn’t lived in the country for 20 years before starting at Earth Eight. "The first three years, we recruited students and families, framed our curriculum, defined our philosophy as a school, and explored how we could foster community."
Initially recruited as Earth Eight's founding English teacher, Sawa is now the director of English education and leads a team of foreign teachers living in Japan. In this role, she oversees curriculum, heads parent-teacher programs, directs an afterschool program, and teaches a few classes. Creating community with the school's families continues to be at the heart of Earth Eight's mission. As a part of the original teaching team, Sawa's goal was to bring back traditional Japanese community involvement, which was lost over the years with increasing western influence.
"Everything, including education, was village-based. Usually, one or two well-respected teachers would teach classes, and parents would know them personally to support their child at home," says Sawa. "But with more classrooms being rote-based and led by one teacher without any involvement from parents, community and education started becoming separate entities."
In Okayama, a smaller city than Tokyo and Osaka, Sawa saw the potential of fostering a deep-rooted community around her school. This idea led to creating "academies" or workshops that support parents in continuing learning at home. Currently, the school uses Parental Effectiveness Teaching (PET), a framework introduced by psychologist Thomas Gordon in the 1950s. English-language learning is a central part of the curriculum and mission of the school as the school believes that it allows more opportunities for students in the modern world. Since most parents aren't bilingual, many of Sawa's workshops support them in teaching English to their children at home.
"Usually, parents would see posts on social media or the Internet about how to teach their kids at home but still feel unsupported. In a workshop I lead for parents, I teach them how to read aloud to kids from picture books, especially English books," says Sawa. "These academies have been the most important piece in our school. We do these programs to distill techniques or ideas so that parents can continue engaging their children at home."
As some of these academies run concurrently with school hours, Sawa holds workshops on Saturdays for working parents. In addition, she sends out newsletters with content and recorded media from the academies, especially about new techniques parents can try out at home.
One challenge Sawa continues to face is getting parents to understand that the techniques and metrics they are used to, such as worksheets and test scores, are not among the tools used to teach language at the play-based and creativity-focused school.
"Getting parents to understand that language isn't about test scores is a challenge I face," says Sawa. "Language is more than being able to communicate — it's an opportunity to be creative and think with it."
Sawa saw enrolling at HGSE as a way to find solutions she can implement at her school – in real time. All her projects have been in the context of her school, where she sees the research and experience of HGSE faculty come to life. For example, a class with Senior Lecturer Karen Mapp, an expert in family partnerships, supported Sawa in addressing some challenges, hopes, and new learnings with research-based techniques.
"I was thrilled to hear that [HGSE's] Ed.M. Program was being offered online," says Sawa. "I had always wanted to gain from the HGSE environment, but I didn't want to leave my school and uproot my life in Japan. This way, I could continue learning from faculty at HGSE and apply that to my school."
In 2020, Sawa was a finalist for the Varkey Foundation’s annual Global Teacher Prize, in recognition of her outstanding contribution at Earth Eight Preschool as a parent education director and afterschool program director, as well as her ongoing effort to foster deep learning for both parents and children. Earlier this year, she also received a 30 Under 30 title from the International Literacy Association. These honors, as well as the support of her community, has helped to keep her love of teaching alive.
"Starting a school from scratch is quite daunting. However, encouraging words from parents made me realize that I want to continue teaching. Getting encouragement from parents was eye-opening,” says Sawa. “In addition, the Global Teacher Prize cohort, especially previous winners and finalists from Japan, have formed a support system. As I don't live in a large city, having people worldwide has helped me learn about other teaching contexts and how I can constantly improve our school."
Sawa continues to lead innovations in family engagement at her school. In 2018 and 2019, she led two trips to the United States for students and their parents. Immersion in an English-speaking country and meeting American peers and educators helped the children apply their learning and value their second language more. Currently, she's designing a workshop for parents to learn about early childhood psychology concepts in which she observes parents teach a class. This, Sawa believes, will raise awareness about the diversity of how children think and normalize certain behaviors. As with all her work, the children and their learning remains centered.
"Relationships really do matter," says Sawa. "We can't learn about their aspirations or hardships without getting to know them. So, I make it a point to have lunch with my kids every day. When you talk to the kids, you hear so many stories about their life — about what made them happy or sad or excited. Keeping your students and families close to you makes all the difference."