Building Language Bridges With Art
Patti Weeg

A smiling Japanese child looked into our eyes from the computer monitor and asked a question, "Do you know this book?" The book in her hands was very familiar to the seven year old students in my Title 1 computer lab. They knew their familiar friends, Frog and Toad, were on that screen though they didn't understand the words. This was the beginning of an online project that began in 1995 with teacher, Isamu Shimazaki, his young students at Rinkan Elementary School and my students at Delmar Elementary School on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Today that project has grown and now includes teachers and students in Uruguay, Argentina, Peru and Brasil. We are bridging language barriers by using drawings and pictures. Soon after the invitation to join their WWW FAX project (Friendships Are eXciting) arrived, our new friends in Japan sent us drawings they had created on their computers. My students did not have access to graphics software so we drew pictures with crayons. I scanned their pictures at home on my scanner and made web pages for our friends at Rinkan to see. We used web pages and e-mail as the method of exchange and dialogue.

Jonathan, one of my students, drew a picture of himself and a birthday cake since his birthday was in a few days. He was very excited to receive birthday greetings in return from his Japanese friends!

To Jonathan

Happy birthday to you! My name is Kanako Ochi. My birthday is April 26. What is your favourite sport? I like swimming best.

Your Japanese friend,

Isamu and I decided that since my students knew the book, Frog and Toad are Friends, we would read the book together. I sent him a copy of the book in English. The following summer when I met Isamu in Brasil he gave me copies of three of the Frog and Toad series in Japanese that are autographed by his students. These are our treasures! On my web pages I posted discussion questions and Isamu and I talked about the story with our classes. The children sent little messages to each other.

From Japan:

Toad was tricked to be shown May's calendar and said," Oh, dear it is in May already" . This is the most favourite part for me.

Satoshi Takano

The students discussed friendships, pizza, football and the environment. Isamu's school went to Enoshima on a whale school excursion. They posted pictures for us and we wrote to them about the Chesapeake Bay.

A seven year old student at Delmar wrote:

Dear friends.

Thank you for the beautiful pictures. I went fishing in the pond and the Chesapeake Bay. Is your water clean for your fish? Do you ever go fishing in your pond?


Our friends in Japan drew wonderful pictures of their Santa and we drew pictures of our Santa for them. My students explained all about our Santa in the USA. They wrote short, simple sentences as second graders will do and Isamu translated for his students. When his students replied he also translated into English for us. Having one teacher who is bilingual is essential for a project of this nature.

The project continued and we began to draw more and more pictures for each other. At times Isamu's students would draw pictures and we would write a story about the picture. It was fun to interpret the drawings and see if we had guessed correctly what the picture was all about. In truth, the pictures were about as many things as we could imagine. I saw my reluctant writers suddenly become eager to write a story about the pictures sent to us from half way around the world. They now had an audience and a purpose for their writing and this made all the difference. Motivation was high. They were limited only by the time we had together in the computer lab. It is not difficult to include language arts skills that my students need to learn when writing our e-mail messages.

In 1996 the project continued as the students in Japan and Maryland drew pictures about their families and Halloween. We told Kanako about "trick or treat" and she asked if we would really do something "bad" to people. My students had some explaining to do! Kanako also sent us a drawing about her mom.

Hello my name is Kanako Ochi, this time I'd like to introduce my mother. Her name is Harumi Ochi. She is working to teach playing piano for some students after school every Monday. She is very busy. I have a brother. He goes to kindergarten everyday, so my mother has to let him go to kindergarten and return with him from there.

from your Japanese friend,
Kanako Ochi

During December of 1996 Isamu asked us to draw pictures of New Year's cards. A Japanese newspaper was going to print copies of these drawings in their New Year's Day edition. My older students in 5th and 6th grade eagerly drew cards that would capture the spirit of New Years Day. Stephanie, a 6th grader, was delighted to hear that her drawing was chosen as one of the cards to be printed in the Japanese newspaper. When our copies of the newspaper arrived there was big excitement at Delmar.

By September of 1997 our project expanded to include students in Uruguay and Peru. There are Spanish speaking students in Isamu's class in Japan this school year. He is working very hard to learn Spanish and to include these students in our global exchanges using art. His students also know Portuguese and they pictures for us with words in Japanese, Portuguese and English. While in Rio de Janeiro in August of 1996 Isamu and I met Sonia Fernandez, a teacher from Uruguay, who was very excited about including her students in the project. Peruvian teacher, Jose Serruto also joined us and his students sent beautiful computer drawings about their country.

When my eight year old students saw the pictures from Uruguay with Spanish words on them we tried to guess what the pictures were telling us. We could recognize "gato" and "escapando." We thought, "The kitty got away!" We sent messages to our friends in Uruguay and asked what happened to the kitty. Did they find it? Where did it go? The next images to arrive were wonderful. The Spanish speaking students made pictures with Spanish text - and a few short words in English! They were trying to help us understand.

In 1998 Isamu sent my students pictures from his school playground and another topic began in our ongoing project to build bridges across language barriers. We soon gathered questions from our students to ask each other about our play areas at school. Pictures were taken and mounted on web pages for all to see. The children began to gather data about class sizes, length of playtimes and class schedules. We gathered the data and spent time thinking about it and formulating more questions.

In time we brought Ines Nuncia and her students from Argentina into our project. Her class sent us pictures of themselves, postcards of Mar del Plata, Argentina and made beautiful drawings for us as well. Here is a message from Nadia who lives in Argentina:

Dear Friends,

Hi, my name is Nadia. I am turning 11 next July 4th,(the American Independence Day). I live in Mar del Plata, Republica Argentina. This is what I do at school at breaktime. There are four playgrounds : one is on top of the building, the others are on the ground floor.( First floor).

The biggest playground is roofed, the others are outdoors. We have a sandbox with some buckets and rakes. It is for the younger kids.

My friends and I have got a basketball ground and a football ground. Then, we also play baseball. We have a cool time at breaktime at school.

Love for you all.

Gisli Tryggvi, from Iceland, sent us this letter about his playground in Iceland.

Dear Patti,

There are three soccer fields, 2 castles, 2 swings, 4 we don't know the English word but it is for two kids sitting at either end of a plank and go up and down (vegasalt). Two another we don't know the word for but it is made of iron and kids can climb up, sit down and slide down on flat iron (rennibraut). Two basketball fields, also place for kids playing on skateboard.

We go out although it rains or snows. If there is snowstorm we don't go to play soccer then we are indoor maybe in the computer but then the weather has to be really bad. Kaer kvedja
Gisli Tryggvi

Isamu and I are KIDLINK volunteers who have been working within this global organization for quite a few years. KIDLINK has now lowered the age limit to include all youth up to and including fifteen years of age. Naomi, a second grader in Isamu's class, participated in the "KIDLINK Day" project by sending a few lines of her journal in text and a drawing to explain better what she meant. English is not the first language for many of our KIDLINK subscribers and we attempt to make all students feel welcome to participate in their native language. By using art as a bridge, Isamu and I feel that we can help our students communicate with their friends around the world. Art has a language all its own.

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Patricia A. Weeg
February 1999