English language teacher to experience Japanese culture

 Messenger photo by Dianne Garrett

English as a Second Language teacher Sonja Dill poses with some of her multi-cultural students at Rosemore Middle School in Whitehall, from left, Jose Vargas, Ali Mohammad, Manuel Vargas, Esayas Kassahun, Dill, Zaineb Bekele, Mahlet Kassahun and Marian Mena. Dill will be taking part in a cultural exchange program in Japan.

A Whitehall educator who teaches English as a Second Language is getting ready to say "sayonara," at least for a few weeks.

Sonja Dill is an English as a Second Language teacher at Rosemore Middle School in Whitehall.  She always says that her students are part of who she is, and they are the reason she loves what she does, and that is teach them to understand the English language.  

Whitehall is a diverse community, with 35 languages being spoken within  the school district.  

Whitehall has eight ESL teachers in the district.  According to Linda Wait, director of Title I and Special Projects for Whitehall’s school district, the ESL population is 12 percent.  Kae Avenue Elementary has the largest number of ESL students, with 20 percent in their building.  Beechwood Elementary is quickly catching up.  The primary language, besides English, is Spanish.

Dill can not only tell you the names of her students, but she can spell them without referring to her grade books.  

It’s not just that she is good with names, but she wants to be sure that she truly knows her students.


Dill will soon be an honored guest of the Japanese government and will depart on June 8 for Tokyo as a participant in the Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund.  

She was selected from a national pool of over 1,700 applicants by a panel of educators. The program allows distinguished primary and secondary school educators in the U.S. to travel to Japan for three weeks in an effort to promote greater inter-cultural understanding between the two nations.

She will be among 160 educators who will begin their visit in Tokyo with a practical orientation on Japanese life and culture and a meeting with Japanese government officials and educators.  

They will continue on in groups of 16 to  host cities where they will have direct contact with Japanese teachers and students during visits to primary and secondary schools, as well as teachers’ college.  They will also visit cultural sites and local industries in addition to a brief home stay with a Japanese family.

Dill is excited to have the opportunity.  She said that she was attending the Teaching English to Students of other Languages (TESOL) conference last year in Columbus, when she saw a booth that had a brochure and application.  

With only two weeks left to apply, she acted quickly.  She had to write two essays, one describing the Whitehall community as a whole.  The other was to detail her "carry-on plan" of how to educate the community from within her building, and to communicate what she learns from the experience.  

Upon her return, she will share what she has learned about Japan with students and the community through a variety of outreach programs.

After Tokyo she will be going to Shimotsuke, Tochigi, the city and prefecture, equivalent to a city and state in the U.S.  This is where she will be the guest in a home part of the time so she can experience every day family life.  

"This is where I’ll truly get to see more about their culture," said Dill.

Dill is in her fifth year as an ESL teacher in Whitehall.  Previously she substituted for one year here after spending five years at Sonshine Christian Academy, where she taught first and second grade.  

She grew up in Columbus, graduating from Eastmoor High School.  She did her undergraduate work at Ohio State University, received her master’s degree in education administration from Ashland University, and did her TESOL course work at Ohio Dominican University.  

She just completed the required classes to obtain a principal license, which will be arriving any day.


Her maternal grandparents were teachers in the Columbus Public School District, and her mother is also retired from the Columbus district.  She doesn’t like to call it a coincidence, but pointed out that her grandmother was a first-grade teacher, her grandfather taught English, and mom was a Spanish teacher.  She, too, has taught all of those areas.

When she and her siblings were teenagers, her mom started taking them on vacations to Mexico.  She preferred staying in small, native, Spanish-speaking motels rather than big resorts.  She wanted her children to learn more about other cultures.  They relied on their mother to communicate.

"We learned to adjust and be confident," shared Dill.

Her husband, Nicholas, is proud of her endeavor.  Dill has to study up on the do’s and don’ts in a foreign country.  She said that she is excited to learn more about their education, art and all forms of culture, but she refuses to eat the blow fish.  As she explained, if it is not cut and cooked properly, the poisonous fish can be fatal.  That’s a chance she is not willing to take.


The Japan Fulbright Memorial Fund, based in Tokyo, oversees all aspects of the Teacher Program.  It is sponsored by the Japanese government, and was launched in 1997 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U.S. government Fulbright Program, which has enabled more than 6,000 Japanese citizens to study in the U.S. on Fulbright fellowships for graduate education and research.  

The Institute of International Education acts as the agency for the fund to coordinate the recruitment and pre-departure activities of the Teacher Program  in the U.S.

Up to 320 educators from all 50 states and the District of Columbia will be invited to visit Japan in June and October of 2008 (160 in each group).  To date, more than 6,000 primary and secondary school educators have visited Japan through the program.

Dill wanted to remind parents and the community that the next Rosemore Cultural Festival will be in October after school resumes from summer break instead of the spring.  The teacher enjoys her students and their families.  She gets everyone who is available on a quarterly basis to do special activities together, like going to the zoo or out to eat.  She believes in bringing her ESL community together so they have a community within a community, and form wonderful friendships.



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