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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I



Rosemary Branham


"I Hear America Singing" 

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong.
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him on his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or at noon intermissions or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day-at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass"


Walt Whitman's well-known poem establishes a rationale for my unit on Japanese music. Whitman proclaims that all men and women sing their own songs, but I don't think that the poet's words should be interpreted to mean that these are only "Americans" singing. There are Japanese farmers, fishermen, carpenters and other laboring people who are also singing. How could we better increase our understanding and appreciation of the Japanese culture as well as our own Alaskan culture than through music?

My ideas for this unit "Alaskans Experience Japanese Culture Through Music" have been informed by a workshop during the Rural Alaska Instructional Improvement Academy entitled "Education in Japan-Lessons and Connections for Alaska", and by a personal interest in Japan which I developed after communicating with my school's sister school in Toyoura, Hokkaido, during the 1986-87 school year.

While teaching students the unique language and system of symbols that form music theory, we also explore ethnic music from around the world. In this paper, I will describe a unit on Japanese music that incorporates singing, playing instruments, dancing, and performing musical drama and puppetry. While fitting into the music curriculum, the unit also integrates easily into such academic disciplines as language arts, art, geography, social studies, and science.

This unit helps bridge the cultural gap between the U.S. and Japan, thus eliminating myths and fallacies in the countries' perception of each other. In accordance with the recent awareness of economic, political, and military interdependences between the Pacific Basin countries, which include the U.S. and Japan, this music unit is intended to help promote the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) suggestion that "the Pacific Ocean is a zone of peace, freedom and neutrality." I would like the unit to familiarize our students with the Japanese culture and help them to make international friends. 

On the following pages, I will describe which content I will include in the music unit, what methods of instruction I will use, and how I will determine what was learned. Resource suggestions are also included.

My unit, "Alaskans Experience Japanese Culture Through Music" fits into the K-6 elementary music curriculum. The curriculum guide for elementary music by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District states, "one purpose of education is to challenge a person's mental, physical, and emotional capacities to grow." Through this unit, students will be exposed to many facets of Japanese culture that will challenge them to learn a foreign language, communicate with Japanese students, and in general, gain insight into a people and culture different from their own.

I use the term "culture" as a general term for such areas as customs, education or the arts, the latter of which can be segmented into religion, fine arts, and music. It is difficult to generalize when talking about Japanese culture because it is a product of the cultural heritage of the Orient, as indicated by Tazawa, et al. (1985) in the following description of the development of Japanese culture:

"The distinctive Japanese culture we have today is the result of encounters between traditional Japanese cultures and foreign cultures through which the latter were imported, absorbed and harmoniously blended. Rather than rejecting alien cultures, the Japanese have chosen to fit them into their own aesthetic framework, often quite creatively adapting them to Japanese needs." 

In order to understand contemporary Japan and its culture, one must study the process by which the ancestors of today's Japanese "Japanized" foreign cultures. The musical development of Japan owes much to the music of China and Korea. Within this cultural frame, Japanese music is, nevertheless, unique.

In the history of Japanese music, vocal music generally played a more important role than instrumental music. Some traditional music developed as part of such drama genres as Noh and Kyogen, Kabuki, and Bunraku. Noh, with 600 years of history, is Japan's classic theater art of extreme refinement and symbolism. The Kyogen is a theater genre of mainly mime farce, and is often inserted as an intermission piece between two Noh plays. Kabuki, another of Japan's theatrical arts, was cultivated primarily by the merchants. It's inception goes back to the latter part of the 16th century. The Japanese puppet show, known as Banraku, is a precious folkloristic cultural heritage in which the Japanese take great pride. Most folk songs, called "min-yo", were originally associated with religious events or daily labor, such as fishing, farming, and packhorse driving. However, now as lifestyles have changed, folk songs are often sung for recreation.

Gagaku, or "elegant music" refers to classical dance, song, and instrumental music as they were performed in a court among the powerful nobility and upper classes. Today there are three types of Gagaku: ancient dances and music of pure Japanese origin, compositions imported from various parts of Asia, and Japanese creations composed after foreign styles. These adaptations of foreign patterns are recognized as a truly classical art form after they have been modified to suit the tastes of the Japanese people.

Do-yo are Japanese children's songs. They are distinguished from folk songs and divided into traditional and modern. They include lullabies, or komori-uta and festival songs, gosekku. Traditional songs include themes like rope-skipping, kite flying and playing hide-and-seek. Today's poets and composers are creating songs that express children's feelings more directly. 

My unit presents two types of traditional Japanese music: art music and folk music. Art music has several different styles that have been maintained and modified over time. In addition to exposing students to various forms of Japanese music, the unit also includes lessons about Japanese instruments, or sankyoku. The primitive recorder was modified to become the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute. The zither bacame the koto, having 13 strings. The shamisen is a three-stringed balalaika-type guitar, played with a large plectrum. Additional traditional instruments include the fue, a smaller flute; the biwa, a lyre with four strings; and tsuzumi and taiko, small and large hand drums. Japanese music is also accompanied with hand-clapping, beating sticks on barrels and bells. This unit on Japanese music also includes language arts lessons on examples of Japanese poetry, Haiku, which students will read and write. The students will have the opportunity to compose music in the style of the Orient to go with their Haiku. A Japanese fairy tale will be dramatized and videotaped using appropriate instrumental accompaniment. 

In another lesson the students will correspond with their sister school. They will write about their music class in Alaska and ask Japanese students questions about their music classes in Japan. Students might also share information about their musical interests outside of school, for example, their favorite pop tunes, favorite performers or groups, etc. In an art lesson the students will view and discuss examples of paintings and prints by Japanese artists as they relate in theme to musical compositions.

Students will learn about world renowned Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa and violinist Shinichi Suzuki. As this subject matter will integrate into a social studies lesson, so will discussions of other past and present occupations of Japanese people. Furthermore, the unit will also include material from the curricula for geography and science. For example, students will be reading maps and discussing particular plant and animal species native to Japan.

In their article, "Weaving Curriculum Webs," Corwin, Hem, and Levin (see this publication) describe an informal or "open education" approach to study. This unit represents such an approach, because it can be implemented at any time during the year in no "predetermined order." However, I would like to introduce the unit during the first quarter of the school year to stimulate school-wide interest in our sister school. The unit doesn't necessarily have to be presented in its entirety. Exploring Japanese music can take place over a period of weeks or months, as the "open education" approach suggests.

Like Corwin, et al., I believe that "individual children learn in a variety of ways, with different children learning different things from the same experience." My unit supports individual learning styles through individual as well as small- and whole-group activities. Small- and whole-group activities include performing songs accompanied by instrument ensembles, dancing folk dances, performing singing games and puppet shows, and producing a video from a Japanese fairy tale. Lessons for individuals involve writing Haiku poetry and composing the music for it, writing letters (using the computer word processor), and making puppets for a show.

Seals by Lizzie Hawley
Lessons will incorporate many types of media ranging from print to video tapes. Guest musicians will bc invited to present material in their specialty area. Lessons are planned to include all learning modes.

I believe that through this unit, the students will "learn through interaction with the world," the international language of music as the medium of interaction. Students will contact students in Japan via the mail.

In their curriculum, "The Axe Handle Academy," Scollon and Scollon (see this publication) ask parents and teachers "What is an appropriate education for our children? How can we prepare them for a world that is unknown to all of us?" In response to these questions, the Scollons propose a curriculum that includes the following three components: bioregional, cultural, and communication studies. My unit of study can be integrated into each of these three components.

Within the bioregional component, students will compare and contrast language, school and community activities, and communicate about Native Alaskan music, and national anthems. Within the cultural component students will identify, compare, and contrast Alaskan, American, and Japanese musical styles and selections of historic and modern music.

I agree with the Scollons that "communication is at the heart of nearly all our activities." The young musicians involved with this unit will develop their communication skills through class discussions, writing and video projects, and telecommunications. Students will have many opportunities to use their communication skills by listening, observing, and reflecting.

This music unit will "increase cultural contact" and give students the opportunity to think "comparatively about culture," as suggested in the "Axe Handle Academy." Students in Alaska and in Japan will compare music lessons, songs, instruments, dances and performing groups. They will also compare music associated with holidays and share musical interests. The unit will allow students to "bridge the Pacific" and reduce the size of our planet through mutual study of cultures. The Scollons suggest, "the best teachers carry on their learning in the company and dialogue with their students." As Confucius practiced this, so will the those who implement this unit.

While researching the materials for this unit, I have become increasingly motivated motivating my students toward more active learning. It is my goal to try and merge our efforts as a "collaborative learning team" traveling to Japan together. What an achievement it would be if we were touring Japan with a group of young musicians, giving concerts, meeting the Japanese, and seeing the sights of their country! Such a trip would lend itself to future cultural exchanges between our community and the community of our sister school. Promoting and implementing such an exchange program will certainly provide goals for students to strive for. Community support and involvement would be essential to achieving our goal. Undeniably, the entire school would become involved in the exchange program since our students traveling to Japan would represent our school as well as our state and country.

I hope my excitement about implementing this unit is contagious. I am ready! I would like to motivate my colleagues to pursue a unit on Japan in their classrooms. The possibilities for school-wide units integrating Japanese culture are unlimited. Hopefully, our schools will exchange instruments native to our cultures, especially a koto or shamisen.

I anticipate celebrating a few of the Japanese national holidays throughout the school year. For example, Children's Day, May 5th; or Culture Day, November 3rd; or the holiday commemorating the founding of the nation on February 11th. "Japan Week" would be another program which perhaps our sister school could reciprocate with by establishing "Alaska Week". Projects such as these would need to be coordinated by a committee of volunteer parents and staff members.

There are various other possibilities for involving the community in our exploration of Japanese culture. Should a Japanese delegation visit our community, it would seem appropriate to house our guests with host families. Perhaps a special community event, such as a picnic could be organized. In case a delegation of students or community members would want to travel to Japan, fund-raising would become a major project, involving the entire school and the community. 

I have planned this unit with a project-centered approach because the varied learning tasks included in a project can be easily integrated with the academic, subject-oriented learning in school and with the experience-based, process-oriented learning in the community. Therefore, I believe that this music project will meet the needs of the students and community.

Local music educators of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District have established the following goals for preparing students to participate in and contribute to informed musical expressions: The student will (1) have experienced a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment: (2) be able to sing and/or use musical instruments to satisfy personal needs and standards; (3) internalize the emotional importance of music, becoming aware of his own unique imagination, emotion and energy; (4) be able to make value judgments about all types of music performed or listened to, in terms of appropriate standards; (5) have the ability to create, comprehend and respond to a variety of musical expressions (Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, 1984, p. iii).. These goals have informed the development of this music unit. The specific objectives of the unit have been devised from learning theory and the general goal of developing in the students the skills that will help them to better understand the aesthetics of music.

To determine what the students have learned I will use informal evaluations through observations, inventories, teacher-made tests, and general subjective evaluations. Collecting, organizing, analyzing, and reporting these data will be the essence of these evaluations.

A detailed list of print, audio and map references for this unit follows in Appendix A. In addition, you may want to inquire locally about Japanese/American citizens who could be guest presentors in your class; or perhaps a church or family has visitors from the Orient who would visit your classroom. The Consulate General of Japan, 909 W. 9th Avenue, Suite 301, Anchorage, Alaska 99501, (907) 279-8428, is a marvelous source for a variety of publications and educational services, including films. The Korean Consulate General, 101 Benson Blvd., Suite 304, Anchorage, AK 99503, (907) 561-5488, and the Embassy of China, 2300 Conneticut Avenue Northwest, Washington, D.C. 20008, (202) 328-2520, are other resources.

Annie Calkins from the Alaska Department of Education, P.O. Box F, Juneau, Alaska 99811-0500, (907) 465-2841 is the coordinator of the sister school program. Dr. William Parrett, Chair, Dept. of Education, Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, 99775, (907) 474-6187 is also involved with sister schools. An excellent resource person on the Pacific Rim countries is Douglas Phillips, Social Studies Program Coordinator for the Anchorage School District, 4600 DeBarr Avenue, P.O. Box 196614, Anchorage, Alaska 995 19-6614. 

As our school nurtures the relationship with its sister school through the music curriculum, it is my wish that other Alaskans will become involved in the "Network" and implement cultural and "people-to-people" exchanges with our Pacific Rim neighbors.

Ahhh, I will soon hear Alaskans singing!!



Alaska Sister Schools Exchange Network. (1987). Juneau, Alaska: Alaska Department of Educaiton.

Leach, M. & Fried, J. (Eds.). (1972). Funk and Wagnalls standard dictionary of folklore, mythology, and legend. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Elementary Music Curriculum Guide. (1984). Soldotna, AK: Kenai Borough School District.

Tazawa, Y., Matsubara S., Okuda, S. & Nagahata, Y. (1985). Japan's cultural history: A perspective. Japan: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Warnick, E. M. (1985, April). Overcoming measurement and evaluation phobia." Music Educators Journal, pp. 33-40.



J. Kelly Tonsmiere


Ray Barnhardt

Section I

Some Thoughts on Village Schooling
"Appropriate Schools in Rural Alaska"
Todd Bergman, New Stuyahok

"Learning Through Experience"
Judy Hoeldt, Kaltag

"The Medium Is The Message For Village Schools"
Steve Byrd, Wainwright

"Multiple Intelligences: A Community Learning Campaign"
Raymond Stein, Sitka

"Obstacles To A Community-Based Curriculum"
Jim Vait, Eek

"Building the Dream House"
Mary Moses-Marks, McGrath

"Community Participation in Rural Education"
George Olana, Shishmaref

"Secondary Education in Rural Alaska"
Pennee Reinhart, Kiana

"Reflections on Teaching in the Kuskokwim Delta"
Christine Anderson, Kasigluk

"Some Thoughts on Curriculum"
Marilyn Harmon, Kotzebue

Section II

Some Suggestions for the Curriculum
"Rabbit Snaring and Language Arts"
Judy Hoeldt, Kaltag

"A Senior Research Project for Rural High Schools"
Dave Ringle, St. Mary's

"Curriculum Projects for the Pacific Region,"
Roberta Hogue Davis, College

"Resources for Exploring Japan's Cultural Heritage"
Raymond Stein, Sitka

"Alaskans Experience Japanese Culture Through Music"
Rosemary Branham, Kenai

Section III

Some Alternative Perspectives
"The Axe Handle Academy: A Proposal for a Bioregional, Thematic Humanities Education"
Ron and Suzanne Scollon

"Culture, Community and the Curriculum"
Ray Barnhardt

"The Development of an Integrated Bilingual and Cross-Cultural Curriculum in an Arctic School District"
Helen Roberts

"Weaving Curriculum Webs: The Structure of Nonlinear Curriculum"
Rebecca Corwin, George E. Hem and Diane Levin

Artists' Credits



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Last modified August 14, 2006