Children’s Choir Invited to Sing in Japan

By jenna Loughlin
Posted 7/1/15

Sometimes dreams can come true.

For Prairie Elementary School music teacher Naoko Sokolik, her dream has been to take students on a trip to visit Japan to help bridge the cultural gap between her …

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Children’s Choir Invited to Sing in Japan


Sometimes dreams can come true.

For Prairie Elementary School music teacher Naoko Sokolik, her dream has been to take students on a trip to visit Japan to help bridge the cultural gap between her home country and her students in Yelm. Though many people may have scoffed at the possibility, her extra work with, and dedication to, her students has earned her after-school choir an invitation to perform as Washington State Goodwill ambassadors when Gov. Jay Inslee travels to Hyogo prefecture in September for a Sister State ceremony.

“It’s very honorable,” Prairie Elementary Principal Deb McLaren said.

Sokolik was shocked when she was informed about the invitation.

“I had this vision that someday we’ll be going, but I didn’t know this opportunity would come up that soon,” Sokolik said. “I think the kids will have a really great opportunity and that they will feel good about their performances because of their responsibility as ambassadors.”

Now all that is standing in the way of Sokolik fulfilling an eight-year dream is the funds to make it happen. In order to bring the 20 kids necessary to perform the original children’s opera written by Sokolik, the group must raise $50,000 by the end of the month.

“I have to take my students out from Yelm,” she said. “I like Yelm, it’s a really nice town, but they have to see outside of Yelm and experience something new.”

To that end, former Prairie Parent Teacher Organization President Kiersten Slevin, whose daughter Kelsie is in the choir, is heading up the fundraising effort. In an attempt to not tap out the local community, she is reaching out to corporations and organizations outside the Yelm area, especially those with economic connections to Japan since that is the focus of the governor’s trip.

“This has been her (Sokolik’s) dream since I met her,” Slevin said. “And then to get the invite to Japan and to see her face just light up. She has this energy about her and she has worked so hard.”

The connection between Prairie Elementary’s choir and representatives from Japan’s Hyogo prefecture started two years ago when it performed at the Washington Hyogo Sister State 50th anniversary ceremony at the state capitol.

“Just the reaction of the Japanese delegation that was here two years ago and how they were so enchanted by our students and quickly built relationships with them, I knew that this extension and offer would come our way,” McLaren said.

Not only did the students perform, they also ended up singing a song in Japanese with the Phoenix Choir, an adult choir from Japan.

“At the end, they sang a song together and Naoko directed it,” McLaren said. “It just brought the house down. The senators and representatives who were there just were so delighted by them and endeared and charmed by them.”

Sokolik did not stop there. Next, she built a sister school relationship with Matsugaoka Elementary, the first such relationship with an elementary school in Japan, and took the after-school choir to perform her opera “in costumes, the whole bit,” McLaren said, for the choir’s second year performing at the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival in Seattle.

If enough money is raised to allow the trip to Japan this September to happen, it will not be connected with Yelm Community Schools. Instead, it will be 20 Yelm children traveling with four official chaperones between Aug. 27 and Sept. 3.

“It boils down to the short time line and it being over the summer and with me gone (on vacation), there really isn’t any administrative oversight that could represent the school,” McLaren. “The smart decision was to transfer it to them (Sokolik and Slevin) so that they could work independently and not be at the mercy of district timelines and district restrictions and district guidelines when those resources may not be available in a timely enough manner.”

However, she will be one of the chaperones and has strict rules in place for the trip.

“I am adamant that there will be four chaperones on this trip and those four chaperones are responsible for the health, safety and wellbeing of the children,” McLaren said. “Any other adults who travel with us are traveling companions. ... When I am there, their children belong to me.”

The plans are for the choir to stay at a facility designed to house traveling Japanese school children, visit Prairie’s sister school on its first day of classes and perform Sokolik’s opera as well as with the Phoenix Choir in the ceremony.

With all that Sokolik has already done to connect her students with Japan, McLaren thinks it would be a great opportunity for them to get to see and experience firsthand their teacher’s world, culture and homeland.

“Travel influences the rest of your life,” McLaren said. “When you travel when you’re young, the rest of your life you have an opportunity to apply what you’ve learned and what you’ve seen and what you experience.”

This year, Sokolik was named YCS Teacher of the Year, and in addition to her work with students, she performs as a percussionist with the Olympia Symphony. Through all of it, she redirects the spotlight, saying she is only doing what she believes is best for students.

“Never once have I seen her, through this whole process, ... say ‘Look what I got. I got these students to get to go to Japan,’” Slevin said. “She would rather it be focused back on the students and that humility just amazes me.”

Slevin was involved with the music program as PTO president and has been involved with the choir since her oldest, Riley, was a part of it. In fact, Riley volunteers to help Sokolik even though she is now a middle school student.

“She has inspired those kids,” Slevin said. “Naoko is really good about bringing the strengths out in students.”

Sokolik feels lucky to have people around her supporting her.

“It was just a dream, now I feel like I can grab and reach,” she said. “I will make it come true.”

McLaren credits Sokolik’s tenacity along with the dedication of her students for potentially making this dream a reality.

“Two days a week after school they get together and they rehearse rigorous, challenging music,” McLaren said. “That’s a remarkable commitment to me and this would be a lovely reward for them as a recognition of their hard work.”

Slevin agreed.

“They choose that. ... They sign up for it,” Slevin said of students joining the after school choir. “It’s just amazing. How often does an elementary student get to go to Japan?”


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