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New program aims to expand cultural education



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JEANINE KOPECKY, the new French teacher at Woods School, has been to France. This photo was taken of her in Sarlat, near the College Jules Ferry, where she has had a partnership since 2008. She taught some classes there in the fall of 2009.

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August 28, 2012 | 03:23 PM
GENEVA — There's a world beyond our borders, and some believe it pays to learn about it.

Jeanine Kopecky said her knowledge of other cultures helped her during the first job she landed after college. In the 1970s, she was a secretary at LeBlanc, a musical instrument company. Those who know of Kopecky as being a local French teacher might be surprised to learn it was her knowledge of Japanese culture that earned her a promotion.

Kopecky said LeBlanc's largest customer base used to be in Japan. But not at first, she said, because the company used to require international customers to provide them with a letter of credit.

"That was a huge insult to the Japanese," Kopecky said, adding after she explained this to her superiors and they changed the policy, sales rose to $7 million in four years, "just from having that cultural understanding."

The little things can make or break a sale, as Kopecky illustrated with another example. She said a Japanese customer wanted a shipment delivered by "2/11." She said the salesperson thought that meant Feb. 11. However, in numerous countries around the world, a numeric date notation such is read to be the day first, then the month. In this case, it was Nov. 2. Kopecky said she also explained this to her superiors at LeBlanc. "So I became promoted," she said.

Now, Kopecky and Woods Administrator Ed Brzinski stand at the helm of a program which breaks new ground in this area. They developed a world cultures program, which begins this year at Woods, and teaches students in the K-8 school about other cultures.

"It's learning language, but as well, it's about learning the culture," Brzinski said. "It's understanding. Understanding is key."

Not everyone thinks of things as Americans do. One of the most common ways to dive into another culture is through its food. There are foods which are more common in other cultures than they are in the U.S. Also, there are common foods which are prepared differently across the globe, such as spaghetti or bread.

"When you say bread to an American student, they have a picture in their mind," Brzinski said. "When you say it in France, the picture a student there has is much different."

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Or in Spain, the place where Brzinski experienced his first taste of a different culture. He was studying abroad in Barcelona.

"I would say I was unprepared," he said of his first visit to a different country. "It probably took me several months to get used to their style of living and the style of communication when I was there. It took me several months to feel at home there."

Kopecky, however, had the opposite experience when she first visited Paris. She thanked her language teacher at Carthage College, Irene Kraemer, and her school for that. Kopecky said at Carthage, they made Paris "real for me in the classroom."

"I think the first time I was in Paris I could literally go anywhere with my eyes closed," she said.

This is one reason why teachers are striving to make Woods students aware and curious about the rest of the world.

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The program

One way to look at the new program is as an expansion of the world language program already at Woods.

"In discussions with parents and the school board, we wanted to elevate this program a bit," Brzinski said.

For the 2012-13 school year, first-year French and Spanish will be taught to seventh- and eighth-graders. For sixth-graders, it's French and Spanish "exploratories," which provides a foundation for each language and intends to provide the student with a basis for which language they wish to study in the future.

Kindergartners through fifth-graders will study North, Central and South America.

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"This first year is setting the framework," Kopecky said.

In the 2013-14 year, the focus on world cultures will expand in the lower grades to include European, Russian and Asian studies. By the 2016-17 year, the intent is to provide Spanish and French language courses to sixth-graders.

The program isn't just about languages. Kopecky said she will ask students what they know of other cultures. She said one of the common questions is what do their families do around Christmas time.

And it expands from there, because it has to.

"We'll be doing math in other languages," Kopecky said. "In business, you can sit at a table and you can be American and speak English ... with other businessmen who can speak three or four different languages."

She said America has been at a disadvantage, and Brzinski agreed. He said with the current reform in math studies, the U.S. is trying to emulate two countries which beat its students' scores — Finland and Singapore, both of which are multicultural and multilingual.

"They found time to make sure their children are educated in different languages," he said.

The people behind the program

Although Brzinski said Woods has traditionally provided an excellent "core" education, it has also held arms open to other cultures. Previous assemblies at the school have featured African drummers, Norwegian dancers and Chinese acrobats.

But Brzinski said this new program is an expansion. Kopecky said it's an infusion of language and culture.

"Culture needs to be in language learning," she said.

Kopecky taught for 24 years, then retired in May from Lake Geneva Area (Joint 1) Elementary School District. Now, she's teaching at Woods, her retirement on hold.

"The possibility to do this was a dream come true for me," Kopecky said.

In addition to helping grow the Joint 1 French program, she has been involved in language programs at the state and national levels, including holding titles with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and the Wisconsin Association For Language Teachers.

"I've invested a decade of my life being an advocate for K-12 programs," Kopecky said. "I've been a resource person, and looking into that, I would say I have helped at least a dozen school districts in Wisconsin help keep their language programs."

In fact, Kopecky and Brzinski have worked together since 1989. He was a Spanish teacher before becoming Woods administrator.

They said they have talked about implementing a program like this for many years. Kopecky said she has notes from those discussions which are about 20 years old.

So naturally, Brzinski thought of her when he spoke to the Woods School Board about expanding the world culture program.

"From her work at the state and national level, I understood her expertise and I could think of no one better to develop a cohesive K-8 program," he said.

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