Even though I am the oldest child in my family, it has been clear to everyone that I would live in the shadow of my younger brother Steven.
I am a school teacher working in Central Wisconsin. I pass Amish buggies every morning, get mocked by kindergarteners every lunch period, and wave to the same old man on his scooter on my way home. I can entertain a troupe of children with nothing more than a cardboard box, duct tape, and glitter.
My brother majored in international business. He has been to more countries than nearly anyone I know. He runs 6–7 miles a day as a warm-up. We are very different people that somehow emerged from the same home.
Sure, he has been to South America, China, Egypt, Jordan, Rome, London, Japan, Canada. He has slept on the shores of the Red Sea and on a boat off the cost of the Galapagos. But I can make a whistle out of a drinking straw! It teaches about pitch! Who am I kidding …
Well, Steven has finally invaded my classroom as well. Stationed by his employer in Japan for six months, Steven has happily become a pen pal of sorts to my students. Every week, he posts a new letter to my students on our in-house social network, Moodle. My students respond the same way that they would to a Facebook posting. Despite his long work hours and the 15 hour time difference, he has managed to respond to many of their posts.
What strikes us as a class are the differences between Greenwood, Wisconsin, and Tokyo. In Greenwood, for instance, the gas station has a hitching post and a local wolf pack is becoming a bit too prosperous. In the Shibuya district of Tokyo, a single commuter train could fit our town’s entire population, wolves and all. To prove this, my brother sent us a train diagram showing just how small our little town is. For my students, many of whom have never seen a bus let alone a passenger train, life without pickup trucks and cars for every family seems completely alien.
This week we received a package from Tokyo filled with goodies sent by my brother. The contents—a reward for students who learned to count in Japanese—are snacks that defy western description and taste. The only familiar item: the (in)famous Green Tea Kit-Kat. As a result, my room is full of kids learning to count in Japanese to earn a piece of candy—much of it odd in flavor and texture. It’s a reminder that the Japanese have the edge in snack food technology.
Steven sent a letter last week with details about a lunch he was having at a famous sushi restaurant, along with a link to the Japanese version of Yelp reviewing the place. This led to another discussion in my class: what sushi is. One thing led to another, and by the end of the week, I was making California rolls for my students.
It met with … mixed results.
Thanks again, Steve. Even from half a world away, via email, you manage to upstage me in my own classroom, but the result has been some of the most memorable learning of the year.