ONAGAWA, Miyagi Prefecture--Following the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, the father of Robert Lehne, an assistant language teacher (ALT), saw the news and images of the disaster, and urged his son to come home.
But Lehne, 39, who was staying in an evacuation center at the time, said no, unlike so many other ALTs, who either fled back to their home countries temporarily or permanently.
"I am so fond of Japan," he said. "Japan is my home. I didn't want to flee from it because of an earthquake and a tsunami."
Today, "Rob-sensei" (Mr. Rob) as he is known to his pupils, is back in the classroom in Onagawa, which hosts a nuclear power plant in cold shutdown, to continue teaching English to his pupils.
He is providing a much-needed service, as a new national education guideline requires "foreign language activities" (English) for fifth and sixth-graders.
Lehne came to Japan in 1996 and has taught at elementary, junior high and senior high schools in Miyagi Prefecture. He currently teaches at Onagawa No. 1 and Onagawa No. 2 elementary schools. Onagawa No. 2 Elementary School now houses the town hall that lost its building in the disaster and also provides temporary classrooms.
On March 11, the tsunami reached almost to the level of the school playground, forcing Lehne and the students and school staff to flee to higher ground.
Lehne's fellow ALT from Canada lost his apartment, his car and even his passport and was forced to temporarily return home.
Lehne's apartment was also swamped by the tsunami, and he was forced to stay in an evacuation center for some time.
But today it's back to school as usual, as he uses games to entertain and teach a class of 21 fourth-graders at Onagawa No. 2 Elementary School in collaboration with Chiharu Doteuchi, 22, the class teacher.
The first session was a card-grabbing game.
Children, grouped into pairs, were each given a set of cards, on which were drawn the national flags and the geographical outlines of nine countries, including the United States and France. The pairs were told to compete one on one to grab the cards.
"Turn your cards over and spread them out." Even difficult instructions, such as this one, could be understood at once when accompanied by gestures.
Pupils alternated coming to the front. Anyone assuming this role took questions from everybody else in the class and had to reply after looking at a card in Lehne's hands. On hearing the answers, the rest of the class competed to grab the cards.
"Hands on your head. Three, two, one. Go!" Lehne said.
"Where are you from?"
"I'm from the USA."
The children grabbed the cards. Lehne explained the rule when two hands touched a card at the same time.
Without consciously trying, students ended up memorizing the names, flags and geographical outlines of countries such as "Korea," "Russia" and "India."
The next session was the long-awaited "time bomb game." Desks were rearranged in the shape of a square, and a green ball, or the "bomb," was passed from one pupil to the next. Before passing it on, however, they had to answer Lehne's question.
Everybody was given fake U.S. dollar bills and coins. Music started, and so did the game.
"How old are you?"
"I'm 10 years old."
"Where are you from?"
"I'm from Japan."
"Where do you live?"
"I live in Onagawa."
The music suddenly stopped and bang went a crashing sound. "Yaah!" was yelled amid loud laughter. The child who had the ball at that time had to have money confiscated as punishment.
The cards used in the class were made by Lehne himself. The rules of the time bomb game were also his invention.
"You don't need to be able to speak fluently," Lehne said. "I want them to take an interest in using English and learning about foreign cultures. That's why I am using the cards."
Lehne wants his students to enjoy studying. He played a game with them during spring vacation at an "open-air class" on the school playground where they would grab alphabet cards.
"We will be able to grow tougher if we manage to rise up from this unprecedented tragedy and hang on to survive," he said. "I want my pupils to visit various countries and fly into the big world in the future."
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