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Following Earth Day and Arbor Day last week, this past Monday, 24 Japanese teachers visited Calvert County to learn about environmental education through the school system’s CHESPAX program.

The teachers, who visited Kings Landing Park in Huntingtown, were part of the Japan–U.S. teacher exchange program for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) through the Fulbright international program. Each year, 24 Japanese teachers are picked to tour the U.S., and 24 American teachers are selected to tour Japan. The two groups meet in a predetermined location to discuss ESD initiatives in the two countries, said Tom Harten, a Calvert County Public Schools CHESPAX teacher. CHESPAX is the school system’s environmental education program.

“The mission of the program is to raise awareness of ESD-oriented school programs, enhance ESD-related curricula in both countries and deepen a sense of global interconnectedness and cooperation between teachers in Japan and the United States,” Harten said in a press release.

“The program is designed for three purposes,” June Ubukata, a manager of special exchange projects for Fulbright Japan, said. “Introduce Japanese and U.S. K-12 educators to each other’s cultures, education and social systems and ESD practices in each other’s country in order to deepen mutual understanding and raise awareness ... in four vital areas of ESD focus: food and sustainable nutrition; environment; energy and resources; and international understanding and cooperation.”

Following the trip, Ubukata said, the Japanese and U.S. teachers will create ESD-focused curricula or collaborative projects and implement them at their own schools.

This was the fourth year Japanese teachers visited Calvert County to learn more about CHESPAX, Ubukata said, since the program began in 2010.

The group arrived in Washington, D.C., the day before and spent all of Monday at Kings Landing Park doing different activities, including planting trees, observing blue bird boxes and fishing using a large seine net, Harten said.

During the fishing activity, the teachers took turns strapping on wet suits and taking the large net out into the Patuxent River to fish for white perch, spot-tail shiners and inland silverside fish.

For Masayoshi Tsujiwaki, a teacher from Hashimoto City in Japan, this was his fourth time visiting the U.S. but first time participating in a program such as this.

“Students can enjoy and study the habitat, and they can be interested in it,” Tsujiwaki said.

In Hashimoto City, he said, there is no river, but there is a pond his students can use for observations. The pond is filled with non-native species that are brought from abroad, he said.

“Native fish are pretty extinct,” Tsujiwaki said. “That’s a big problem in my country.”

As a former Fulbright Japan-U.S. teacher exchange participant, Harten said his experience in the program was “phenomenal.”

“We learn different strategies teaching this type of education,” Harten said. “The Japanese focus more on sustainable agriculture, and we focus more on environmental. Part of it is learning the educational systems in each country … it’s a cultural exchange as well as an educational exchange.”

After visiting Japan with the program in 2010, Harten said he is still in touch with the other teachers he met.

Robin Shaffer, a volunteer at the Institute of International Education and former vice principal of Plum Point Elementary School, also toured Japan in 2011 as part of the exchange program.

“It was a transformative experience to see the similarities and differences in schools here and there,” Shaffer said while volunteering with the group Monday.

Shaffer also served as a panelist for this year’s candidate selection and said it is a “very competitive process.”

“It’s a two-week whirlwind tour for these teachers, but the real blessing is in the unintended consequences,” Shaffer said. “The ability to seed other programs and projects relating to sustainability … I’m gratified to see [the program] came back to CHESPAX. It underscores the importance of CHESPAX in environmental education.”

Following their time with CHESPAX, the group split in two and visited two schools in Alexandria, Va., before traveling to Nashville and Miami.

“In each city, the site visits include primary and secondary schools with ESD curriculum, colleges and ESD-related institutions and organizations,” Ubukata said.

The teachers will then regroup in San Francisco to have a joint conference with the American exchange teachers before all — both the U.S. and Japanese teachers — head back to Japan. A joint meeting in Tokyo between both groups of teachers will take place in early July, Harten said.

snewman@somdnews.com