Byram Hills High School teacher Martin Gilbert, who teaches both global history and economics recently traveled to Japan on a two week immersion experience for history teachers sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for East Asian Studies. The study tour took the twenty participating American teachers, chosen through a selective application process, to various sites in Tokyo and the northern island of Hokkaido handpicked for their cultural, political and economic significance.
“Every day was a highlight,” says Mr. Gilbert. He particularly enjoyed interacting with the diverse mix of young teachers on his trip. As the oldest teacher on the tour, he filled the role of a mentor to them. Some of his favorite experiences included attending a very lively baseball game, traveling around Hokkaido and soaking in its natural beauty, visiting a school and working in small groups with students learning English, visiting the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, and riding the high speed bullet train, the Shinkansen. He really enjoyed visiting the “onsens,” Japanese hot springs, and partaking in the public bath ritual. Mr. Gilbert was pleasantly surprised to discover that the hotel owned a “yukata,” traditional bathrobe for the onsen, that fit his tall 6-foot-7-inch frame.
Other highlights of the trip included visiting and spending time with staff at the United States Embassy and meeting a Japanese diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was an expert on Chinese-Japanese relations. The diplomat discussed the tension over islands in the South China Sea.
“For me, as someone who is very interested in current affairs, it was fascinating to hear about trade relations between China and Japan, the second and third largest economies in the world.” Mr. Gilbert said. “I like to discuss current events in my classes. This year I will certainly talk more about Japan and the United States and the current trade war.”
Visiting the Shrines
Mr. Gilbert has always longed to visit Japan since the country holds special meaning for him. He has told many Byram Hills students this story when talking about shrines in eastern religions in his global history class. When he and his wife were newlyweds, she traveled to Japan on a fellowship. While there, she prayed for a baby at a shrine. After returning from her trip, she was soon pregnant with the couple’s first son. Ever since then, Mr. Gilbert wanted to travel there.
In his class, Mr. Gilbert teaches about Shintoism and Buddhism. After visiting many shrines in Japan, he can now relay his first hand experiences to his students. Like his wife, Mr. Gilbert had his own opportunity to pray for a wish at a Shinto shrine. The process involved buying a small thin wooden plaque for the equivalent of ten dollars, writing your wish on the plaque, and hanging it on the rack of wishes in the hope that the deity housed at that shrine will make your wish a reality. He took pictures of the plaques that he plans to share with his students to allow them to visualize this ritual that they may have only read about in a textbook. His personal experience gave him perspective to share with students who might be familiar with the custom of placing prayer notes in the Wailing Wall in Israel.
Incorporating the Trip into Classroom Lessons
Between his first hand account of customs observed and the videos he recorded of his experiences that he will incorporate into his curriculum, he will be able to offer a glimpse into Japanese culture to his students. Visiting in person allowed Mr. Gilbert to gain deeper insight into customs he may never have read about in a textbook. He learned that people are prohibited from walking through the center of a “torii” gate into a shrine because the center is reserved for the gods. He learned that people entering a shrine must follow a purification ritual with very specific steps with regard to washing your hands and face.
Even after teaching at Byram Hills for twenty-seven years, Mr. Gilbert is continually seeking educational and cultural enrichment for himself and his students. This was his fourth trip to Asia. On previous study tours, Mr. Gilbert has traveled to Korea twice and China once. He has also been to Israel on a Fulbright Scholarship and to Nicaragua through the Byram Hills Education Foundation.
“I really want to give back to the kids by sharing my experiences. I hang pictures of my trips up in the classroom and I let my students know that there is a world outside Armonk. I hope that some of my students get the travel bug,” says Mr. Gilbert. Opening himself up to new learning experiences as a teacher, he is a great example to his students of how one can always continue to learn in life.