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WECA Students Learning Japanese

A picture of Morgan Freeman stares down from an otherwise empty bulletin board in Nick Johnson’s classroom at Wilson Early College Academy (WECA). It’s a great picture of the popular actor and also an inside joke among the 12 students in the room and their teacher.   

As Mr. Johnson begins the lesson, it becomes obvious that pretty much everything that occurs in that classroom from 2-3:15 p.m. is a mystery to outsiders. It’s during that time that Mr. Johnson transforms from a chemistry and physics teacher into a Japanese teacher. 

This is the first year Japanese has been offered at WECA as a class. Prior to its addition, it was only a monthly club led by Mr. Johnson.

“The club itself was a bit disjointed and most of the students just wanted to watch anime. But I discovered there was a decent interest in learning the language,” said Mr. Johnson. “I did some research and learned that I was three credit hours away from being able to add Japanese to my license. This past summer a course that would fulfill the requirements was offered at ECU so I took it, and here I am.” 

Mr. Johnson added that teaching a foreign language is a very different animal than teaching science. He shared that he has to learn even more than his students in order to advance his own skills and stay ahead of them. 

While the class has a heavy focus on grammar and learning to write the Japanese characters, students are also immersed in the culture and completing assignments relevant to real life. Recent projects include writing and illustrating children’s books, buying items as customers and selling them as shopkeepers and pretending to be doctors and patients over the phone. 

“I took this class because I knew it would be interesting,” said Alexia Barnes, who is in her fifth and final year at WECA. “I really like it, and I’ve learned so much from the projects we’ve worked on. It’s not as hard as I thought it would be, and I think it’s because I’m really interested in it and don’t mind putting in the time to learn about it.” 

Tre’ Burkett, a fourth-year student, said he took the class because it was new and his cousin had recently visited Japan. He wanted to be able to talk to him about it and have a better understanding of what he experienced. 

“I liked taking Spanish, but I knew a lot about the Hispanic culture. I didn’t know much about Japan so it interested me,” said Hayley Platte, a fourth-year student. “The hardest thing in Japanese so far is learning the characters because the strokes have to be done in a specific order.” 

Right now only two semesters of the class are offered. Mr. Johnson is thinking about allowing his fourth-year seniors who will finish the class at the end of the year to serve as tutors to next year’s students so they do not lose what they’ve learned. 

“I think it’s a great opportunity to expose them to something that teenagers in Wilson and Eastern North Carolina might not encounter in a relatively rural area,” said Mr. Johnson, who learned Japanese in college. “To expose students to a new language and culture and get them thinking about how the world is bigger than Wilson is important. I hope in a small way I’ve accomplished that.” 

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