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A Review of StarFestival: Exploring Cultural Heritage

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Before joining Stanford University in 1988, I was an elementary school teacher. My last teaching assignment was in the first grade, which I taught for six years. When I heard that Boston Public Schools (BPS) had recently adopted StarFestival for all of its 210 first-grade classrooms to encourage cross-cultural learning programs about Japan, I was impressed and moved for several reasons.

cover for StarFestival: a return to Japan  For one, the adoption strongly indicates BPS’s commitment to international and cross-cultural education. I had the honor of meeting Dr. Shigeru Miyagawa, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who created StarFestival as a multimedia curriculum for students at the K-12 levels to learn about modern Japan and its cultural and historical underpinnings. I learned that Miyagawa had grown up in a small town, Hiratsuka, in Japan, and at the age of ten in 1962, moved to Durham, North Carolina. His family was the only Japanese family in town. He spent very impressionable years in Durham and later in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; his struggles with his identity as a Japanese immigrant in the United States inspired him to develop StarFestival. During our conversation, I was very impressed with Miyagawa’s sincere concern for K-12 education and the need to reach students when critical attitudes are developing-attitudes that are key to their identity formation. I’m sure that Miyagawa is a mentor for many of his undergraduate and graduate students at MIT; through StarFestival, in many ways, he also will serve as a mentor to many K-12 students. It is noteworthy that Miyagawa began his teaching career as a K-6 teacher.

Second, StarFestival is a wonderfully comprehensive curriculum package–it includes a CD-ROM (called StarFestival: A Return to Japan), which is the heart of the package, as well as a teacher’s guide, field, and search notes, student workbooks, and a big book called When I Was a Boy. The CD-ROM examines Japan and issues of cultural identity as its main character, “The Professor,” visits twenty sites from his childhood, conducts interviews, and shares his past. My favorite site was number 17, “High School.” During my exploration of this site, I learned about the experiences of Miyagawa’s mother during World War II. During a B-29 bombing raid on her town, she grabbed a pair of scissors and ran off to a forest by a beach. She later wished that she had taken something more valuable.

Throughout StarFestival, students are encouraged to reflect upon their own identities. I was struck by the scissors with which she ran off, and I thought about my own family’s life in California shortly after the U.S. entry into World War II. Prior to the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast, most Japanese Americans were given concise notice to pack up only belongings they could carry to camp. Many later had regrets about what they had left behind or sold for bargain prices and what they had taken. My grandfather, for example, took a coconut painting with a scene from Hawaii. He had immigrated first to Hawaii in the early twentieth century and had purchased this coconut. I sometimes wonder why he would have taken such a bulky and seemingly useless item-especially when space inside one’s suitcase was so valuable. As it turns out, I still have that coconut in my office, and I thought about it while exploring the experiences of Miyagawa’s mother during World War II. In many ways, the scissors and coconut have become artifacts symbolic of a challenging time, i.e., World War II, for Miyagawa’s family and mine. Though neither Miyagawa nor I were alive during World War II, our families’ experiences during the war helped shape our identities as Japanese Americans.

cover for the starfestival K-12 teacher's guideThird, I wish I could have studied at StarFestival as a first-grader. As a third-generation Japanese American, I, too, struggled with my identity as a young boy growing up in rural California. American students of Japanese descent will probably make immediate emotional connections to Miyagawa’s experiences with identity–as I did while exploring the twenty sites on the CD-ROM. The focus on the theme of “identity” in a U.S. context and Miyagawa’s personal touches throughout StarFestival should provide inspirational linkages for all American students (and teachers).

The task of making a CD-ROM meaningful to a K-12 audience is undoubtedly a daunting one. Willamarie Moore of the Boston Children’s Museum has carefully and successfully integrated content from StarFestival into activities and lessons that are very accessible to a young audience. The exercises she has developed focus on the themes of Food & Clothing, Home & Hobbies, the Tanabata Festival, Work: Fishing Industry, and World War II. These activities are available in a K-12 teacher’s guide and workbooks for grades 3-6 and 7-9. Moore’s collaborative work with teachers and understanding of effective pedagogy certainly comes through.

cover for when I was a boy, featuring a pair of robed lovers holding handsDuring its development, the curriculum was successfully piloted at all K-12 levels. I would use this curriculum package without hesitation if I were still teaching. The big book, When I Was a Boy, coauthored by Ellen Sebring and Mary Rudder with illustrations by Melissa Ferreira, is one of my favorite parts of the StarFestival package. This book tells the story of “The Professor” in StarFestival from the time he was born and lived in Japan until he left for the United States with his family at the age of ten. It is very richly illustrated with accompanying photographs. If I were teaching at the high school level, I would take advantage of the StarFestival Field Notes, which provide cultural and historical notes about information in the CD-ROM, to help me prepare more advanced activities as well as to assist with the debriefing of topics such as food, gift giving, education, business, generational differences, and World War II.

Along with its Japanese content, StarFestival fulfills general and immediate educational needs-teaching to the standards, exploring cultural identity, and integrating computer skills. This is why BPS adopted it system-wide as part of its core curriculum. Teachers will be pleased to know that Michael Hartoonian (Professor at the University of Minnesota, former President of the National Council for the Social Studies, and coauthor of the National Social Studies Standards) has noted, “The StarFestival CD-ROM and Curriculum make a dynamic connection between the complexities of content, as envisioned by the national standards, and students’ engagements with meaningful and authentic narratives and intellectual mysteries.” Other endorsements, awards received, and ordering information can be found on StarFestival‘s Web site, I’m sure that your exploration will be as rewarding as mine.

Along with its Japanese content, StarFestival fulfills general and immediate educational needs-teaching to the standards, exploring cultural identity, and integrating computer skills. This is why BPS adopted it system-wide as part of its core curriculum.