The new Morse Code: Japanese

It was an ambitious decision, to say the least. Two high school freshmen, twin girls, selected Japanese as their language of choice at a school that didn’t offer Japanese.

That was more than two years ago.  Katie and Emily Morse are now juniors at Machias Memorial High School, and their learning dilemma has worked out just fine, thank you very much.  Or, arigatou gozaimasu, as the twins would tell you.

“This is a real-world example of student-directed, independent learning,” explained Joyce Fragale, Coordinator of Gifted and Talented Services for AOS 96, Machias Bay Area Schools. “I can tell you this never would have happened without the access opportunities stemming from the Maine Learning Technology Initiative.”

Katie and Emily have been interested in several aspects of Japanese culture — including language, literature, fashion, music, food and especially the translation of comics — since they were seven years old. For their 13th birthday, they requested and received Rosetta Stone interactive software, teaching them to fundamentally speak, read and write in Japanese.

Their timing was perfect. As part of MLTI’s statewide distribution to middle school students and teachers, Katie and Emily each received a MacBook computer. With the MacBook powering their Rosetta Stone studies, and with 24/7 access to international resources, the twins had all the tools they needed to overachieve.

By the time they entered Machias Memorial High School in 2009, Katie and Emily were ready to extend their proficiency of Japanese language and culture.  But when the time came to sign up for language classes at their new school, French and Spanish were the only options in the course catalog.

That wasn’t going to stop them, though.

“It was their guidance counselor who suggested they take online courses offered by the University of Missouri,” recalled Cathy Morse, the twins’ mom and an elementary school teacher. “They were told their credits would count toward their diplomas, but their grades would not apply toward their GPA.”

That deal was good enough for Katie and Emily. With Machias Memorial High School Guidance Director Cara Cirillo supporting their mission and serving as proctor for their exams, the girls, then “freshmen” at both Machias Memorial and the University of Missouri, invested academic lab time during the day and online research time in the evening to continue their Japanese studies.

At home, the twins’ online work included lesson response, verbal recordings and translations of language, videos, music and literature. They regularly communicated with professors via email. They shared their language class online with high school students throughout the United States.

Once Japanese 1 was successfully completed at Missouri, Katie and Emily “digitally” transferred to Brigham Young University for Japanese 2. So far, so good.

“Without having their MacBook computers at home, this would have been very challenging,” Morse said.  “I cannot overstate how proficient the girls have become speaking Japanese.”

Looking ahead, both Katie and Emily hope to attend a college with a Japanese immersion program and, ideally, an opportunity to visit and study overseas.  Their top choices are Bates and Bowdoin. Katie would focus on languages, Emily on Japanese art history.

Morse credited Fragale as a source of advocacy and inspiration for her daughters throughout the process. Fragale deflected the credit back to a guiding principle of MLTI — that a student-centered system can’t take root without mentoring teachers helping students find the resources to achieve their goals.

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