Teachers trip brings Japanese art, culture into focus for Walt Morey students

An exchange sends art teacher Carson Abbert on 3-week trip to Asian nation
by: Carole Archer, Walt Morey Middle School art teacher Carson Abbert, right, helps seventh-grader Chelsy Grover with her watercolor rendition of Japan’s Mt. Fuji on Friday, Dec. 1.

When Walt Morey Middle School art teacher Carson Abbert wants to shock his young charges, he just mentions the fact that Japanese students clean their own schools.

'My students are horrified to discover that Japanese students are responsible for cleaning their school, even the bathrooms,' Abbert says. 'But, in Japan, this is just part of taking responsibility for your school … just another part of the day. Most students even did it with enthusiasm.'

One of 600 U.S. teachers selected for the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program, Abbert, 32, traveled to Japan earlier this year, in October, for a three-week-long intercultural exchange.

Abbert says he went into the exchange with an open mind and returned with a better understanding of his own nation.

'There is an expression I really like: 'One never really knows their own culture until they experience another's.' I think this is true, and I hope my students get a glimpse into both Japanese and American culture as I share my pictures and stories,' Abbert says.

Sponsored by the Japanese government as a way to promote better intercultural understanding between our country and theirs, the JFMF Teacher Program has brought more than 5,000 American educators to the Asian nation over the past decade.

'I am grateful to the Japanese government for such an amazing educational opportunity,' Abbert says. 'But I am also grateful that I work in a district that realizes this was an experience of a lifetime, one that will enrich my students' learning for years to come.'

Abbert brought back thousands of pictures and several pieces of Japanese art to share with his Walt Morey students.

One thing that amazed the young art teacher was Japan's appreciation for its modern artists.

'They call them 'living treasures,' ' Abbert says, pointing out a poster dedicated to the work of modern-day Japanese artists. 'They value their traditions so much there.'

Abbert brought some of the classics back to his students, including various works by one of Japan's most-celebrated artists, Hokusai. The bohemian artist, who created woodblock prints during the early 1800s, is best known for his series 'Thirty-six Views of Fuji,' which included his most famous piece, 'The Great Wave.'

Abbert is teaching his students to recreate this type of painting style, and they will soon conquer their own rendition of the 'Thirty-six Views,' but rather than drawing Mt. Fuji, the Walt Morey students will depict Oregon's most famous peak, Mt. Hood.

Their work, along with other Asian-inspired art and literature projects, will be displayed at the school's Cultures of Asia Night, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 6, in the Walt Morey library.

'Since my return I've been sharing as much of this experience with Walt Morey's students and staff, but ultimately it will be the students that share their learning and their projects with the community,' Abbert says.

Of the three-week trip, which took Abbert through Tokyo ('I felt like I was in a Western city,' he says) and to a tiny fishing village on the coast (the place where Japanese surfing was born and where Abbert experienced his first typhoon), the art teacher says the trip was 'ichi go ichi ei.'

'That's their expression for 'once in a lifetime,' and this trip truly was a once in a lifetime experience,' Abbert says.

'I'd like my students to have the opportunity to see Japan as a living culture,' Abbert added. 'Often we study the traditions and the history of Japan - which is great and is a good portion of my curriculum - but my students are really interested in the now, in the present Japan. They want to know about McDonald's, about the fashion, the cars, the youth.'

Abbert is trying to teach his students that there is much more to Japan than 'kimonos and cherry blossoms.'

'And, for some students, this (present-day Japan) will be the thing that makes Japan interesting to them,' Abbert says.