By Debbie Adams
The Vinton WorldTrekkers are planning a trip to Japan in the summer of 2024. Led by William Byrd teachers Cherry Bell Damasco-Farrington, Dionne Nichols, and Ashley Satterfired, the Worldtrekkers are “a group from Vinton who love to travel the world together. We have always enjoyed experiencing new places because the world is our largest classroom.”
According to their website, their international adventures started with a group of Byrd students asking their instructor, Mrs. Damasco-Farrington, to take them to Spain on a field trip to learn more about Spanish culture. “It turned into an adventure that 16 travelers will most likely never forget.”
Damasco-Farrington taught Spanish at WBHS from 2004 to 2016, then became the Instructional Technology Resource Teacher. Nichols and Satterfield teach English there. All have traveled extensively.
The trip to Japan is scheduled for July 2024, with a group of adults/family members, former and current students, from William Byrd, Botetourt County, Cave Spring, Patrick Henry, and Franklin County. They will spend nine days in Japan, plus two days of travel and visit the cities of Tokyo, Hakone, Nara, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima.
Damasco-Farrington says that once the trip was arranged, she wanted to find a way “to keep excitement for the travelers who had signed up; I wanted to prepare them for the culture and language of Japan.
“I knew one of our former students, Michael Cisneros, had taught in Japan before the COVID pandemic so I reached out to him to see if he would be interested in leading our group in language and culture classes throughout the school year leading up to the trip. I partnered with the International Club at WBHS because I knew that there are many students who have an interest in learning about the Japanese language and culture as well.
“When I approached Michael about the classes, I wanted my travelers and other participants to learn the language and understand the culture. I wanted to at least cover the basic expressions for travel– introducing oneself, learning a bit more about the destinations that we will be visiting on our trip, which Michael had visited during his time in Japan. From there, he has taken the questions that participants have and made a plan for a monthly newsletter and our in-person classes. There is no set curriculum; we are devising it as we go along.”
About 20 teachers, students, and adults are attending the classes regularly and most are enrolled for the trip.
So far, the classes have discussed the geography of Japan, Japanese language and culture, the different alphabets (kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana), Japanese history, foods and etiquette, greetings, goodbyes, numbers, transportation, religions, cities on the travel itinerary, and family.
Cisneros graduated from WBHS in 2016 and from Virginia Tech in 2019. Shortly thereafter he moved to Onomichi, Hiroshima with the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Program.
“At Virginia Tech, I majored in Creative Writing with a double major in Spanish and Professional and Technical Writing,” Cisneros said. “With these majors, I was already considering teaching as an option after university. My older sister taught English in Mexico with a Fulbright scholarship, which helped plant the idea of teaching abroad in my head at the time.
“My interest in Japan started as a child through animated shows and games like Pokémon. The curiosity grew in high school when I started to watch anime, Japanese animated shows, and became fascinated by the stories they told. Those stories are part of what influenced my decision to study creative writing as my major and I continued to consume Japanese media into university.
“I learned about the JET Program from YouTube videos posted by other English speakers living in Japan. From listening to how they got there and with a bit of research, I learned that the JET Program was the best organization for teaching English in Japan in terms of the support, reputation, and salary. With that knowledge, as well as my educational background and the influence of my older sister, all the stars aligned for me to apply to the JET Program and to my surprise, I was accepted.”
He taught English in six public elementary and junior high schools in the city of Onomichi.
“All of the students and staff were incredibly kind and welcoming to me,” Cisneros says. “That was generally my experience with everyone I met while I was there. The people I met are one of the biggest highlights of Hiroshima and that is matched by the beauty of nature in the area.
“The program at Byrd of the monthly language and culture classes came about from Cherry Bell reaching out to me about the trip she was planning for the Vinton WorldTrekkers to go to Japan in 2024. She has kept up with me since I graduated from William Byrd, so she knew that I had been living in Japan.
“One of the main aspects of the JET Program is cultural exchange, which was a regular part of my job in Japan, sharing aspects of American and Mexican culture with my students, but I still feel strongly about continuing cultural exchange. The direction of the exchange is switched now that I am sharing Japanese culture in America, but I am always happy to do so.
“When she asked if I could give some classes at William Byrd, it was an easy decision. The class is meant to give the future travelers some base knowledge they will need on their trip in terms of language and culture, but I encourage anyone who is curious to learn more about Japan to join.
“Many of the topics covered in the lessons were requested by the participants early on. Much like my classes in Japan, I want to keep lessons fun and interesting while covering subjects that will be useful to the participants in their travels.
“I want to keep supporting them with these classes until their trip so they can have the best experience possible in Japan.”
Dionne Nichols and her son Sydney will be touring with the group in 2024.
“Cherry Bell started Vinton WorldTrekkers on a whim with her first tour to the Mediterranean, and I joined her in working to interest members of the community in additional trips,” Nichols says. “We toured the capitals of the British Isles in 2018, had our tour Down Under cancelled due to Covid in 2020, and this past summer toured Germany and the Swiss Alps.
“Because the Far East cultural norms vary from America, we wanted the opportunity to build base knowledge of the land, its history, and its culture for our Japan: Land of the Rising Sun tour. Additionally, lessons on the language can help travelers feel prepared for everyday interactions.
“My intent as a mom is even bigger – I want my son to have as many experiences as possible before he’s off on his own. Helping him (and others) develop a global perspective and cultural acceptance– I feel that is necessary to help improve our world, and it starts at home.”
Nichols says the classes with Cisneros have been “wonderful. Michael is a wealth of knowledge without being intimidating. We’ve met people we’ll be traveling with as well as developed our understanding of the culture, religions, language barriers and the food we’ll be able to try. It has fostered our anticipation of a tour that is going to be with us the rest of our lives!”
The next meetings of the Japanese language and culture class are scheduled for March 13 and April 10. They will then take a break until fall.