A flurry of little hands raise, and there’s some excited squirming as preschool teacher Sun Xiao points to a Chinese character drawn in green marker. She asks the class in her native language, “What’s this?” The 4- and 5-year-olds enrolled in Masson Elementary School’s Chinese immersion class are sitting in a half-moon formation, and they wait for Sun to call on them.
Sun speaks not a word of English, yet students listen and respond to the Mandarin Chinese lesson. She calls on a girl named Taylor, who pronounces the Chinese character out loud and wins approval. Sun smiles, her singsong inflection complimenting the correct answer.
Next, the students count from one to 15. They recite days of the week. Together, they repeat the date and practice saying “2010” — quite a big number. Sun continues leading the lesson in Chinese, sometimes correcting the little learners. She asks a pupil to sit cross-legged. She points to her own eyes to instruct a child to pay attention. Most of the time, students’ eyes are glued to the petite instructor, with her long black hair and gentle nature.
“This immersion in the Chinese language is forcing the brain to really stretch at a time when it is devoted to language acquisition,” explains principal Marcy Smith. “[The students] can make sense of sounds and symbols. Research tells us that this way students eventually have a greater capacity for using, understanding and learning the language.” When students are this young, they are in prime language-learning mode, and they can easily pronounce and grasp the grammar of a second language.
Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. Aside from the Lorain City schools’ commitment to adopting this important language, the city has been working to forge business relationships in China. Mayor Tony Krasienko reported that July 2009 meetings in Beijing were “productive,” as the city worked to leverage and build its Foreign Direct Investment program by targeting Chinese investors. Lorain administrators know that adding Chinese to the preschool and high school levels will prepare students — some of them way in advance — to compete in a global economy.
“You don’t usually see these types of programs available to students in high-poverty districts” like Lorain, points out Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Atkinson.
Atkinson is passionate about giving students language and cultural opportunities so they can adopt skills that will serve them in the real world. She came from Charlotte, North Carolina, whose school district had seven full immersion programs in one place. So about two years ago in Lorain, Atkinson began exploring the possibility of bringing an immersion program here, just when financial setbacks had left Spanish as the high school’s only language option. The district was able to add French back to the high school in 2007-2008, and last year Mandarin was offered through distance learning at the high school. Students learned by video from an instructor in Kansas.
“As we began to see an interest grow, we started looking to see if there were grants available to give us more funding to have more opportunities,” Atkinson says.
Last year, Lorain Schools applied for a grant through the Ohio Department of Education in conjunction with the College Board that would position Lorain as host to two Chinese teachers. Lorain is the only urban district that applied for and won the three-year grant, Atkinson says.
In July 2009, Lorain welcomed Sun from her hometown of Qingdao, the sailing site for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Zhang Yang (Jacky), from Mudanjiang, near the northeast tip of China. Both were teachers in China, but neither had visited the United States before this experience. Jacky, who chose this American name because he’s a fan of Jackie Chan, has been teaching English to elementary students in China since graduating from college in 2005.
“I dreamed that one day I would have the chance to teach American young kids and to have the experience, to learn more meaningful knowledge outside of China,” he says, speaking quickly and enthusiastically about his first trip to the United States.
Already, Sun and Jacky have made an indelible impression on students. “Jacky does a great job of keeping the students really engaged,” says Diane Conibear, lead high school principal of Lorain Admiral King High School, where Jacky teaches.
Even more amazing is the fact that students, after a few months of exposure to the language, can communicate with their new Chinese teachers. “They are excited about having an opportunity like this, and it’s something different that not every student is exposed to,” Atkinson points out.
At the preschool level, pupils are inundated with Mandarin. In immersion programs, students learn the language by hearing and using it rather than actually studying the language itself. Also, cultural awareness is a significant part of the curriculum, teaching students about customs and helping them understand much more than vocabulary words.
So in the classroom, rather than teaching the foreign language by translating English to Chinese, Sun uses hand and body cues, stories, inflections, facial signals, songs and games.
“That intense eye contact helps the kids shut out sounds around them and focus on the lesson,” Smith says. “They want to please the teacher, and they know she is expecting them to try.”
Sun seems to switch media every five minutes. She starts with a simple question-and-answer lesson, then introduces a puppet to the class. The puppet says “hello” to each student, one by one, and students reply in Chinese.
Next, Sun puts in a videotape with Chinese cartoon characters who sing and dance. The kids immediately pop up from their circle on the floor and march in place along with the music. They clap, jump, turn and raise their hands up over their heads. As they move, they boldly recite Chinese words for each motion.
“In all of the preschool classrooms, we incorporate a lot of movement to make sure kids that learn through that [method] are getting every bit of the [support] they require, too,” Smith says. “That movement piece helps keep their attention by getting the wiggles out.” It also gives kids who need to move in order to learn a chance to do that.
The idea of immersing students in a foreign language at a young age is not new, but Lorain Schools is the first district in Ohio to offer such a program in Mandarin Chinese. Before implementing the program at Lorain, Atkinson and other administrators observed successful programs in other cities, including Charlotte.
“The first couple weeks, the children are walking around in tears because they don’t understand, and the temptation is to comfort them and to translate for them, and the success of the program depends on resisting that temptation,” Smith says of experiences other schools have had with immersion programs.
But after the tears dry, curious students catch on quickly and the language begins to stick.
“The students are like sponges,” Atkinson says. “You would not believe it. If you walked into those classrooms at the beginning of the year, you’re wondering, ‘Are they ever going to learn this?’ At the end of the year, you’re amazed.
“They learn to speak just as we all have from our parents and family members,” Atkinson continues. “We don’t learn how to write or read English by the age of 3 or 4, but we speak it very well.”
Uninhibited children don’t worry if their pronunciations sound silly. They don’t care so much about making a mistake as they sound out words. This is evident in the enthusiastic speaking that occurs in Sun’s classroom. The pupils have the intonation down. Sure, there are mumbles when words are difficult to pronounce, but there’s a quick rebound when students recognize a word and can say it loud and clear.
If learning continues like this, students will be capable of so much more by the time they are in high school or entering the workforce. Atkinson sees this vision and wants it to happen for Lorain students. “Anytime you have access to learn another language, you’ll be better for it,” she says.
Jacky is lively, dressed in a red Chinese robe and engaging his high school class like he’s a talk show host on a mission to teach Mandarin. This environment is not immersion, but a traditional language class in which students translate back and forth between English and Chinese. Jacky is prepared with tools and games to make this happen, including a fly swatter for a numbers game he invented.
He scrawls three numbers on the chalkboard of the classroom, which is decorated with Chinese lanterns and a flag from his home country. Quick-witted and fast-speaking Jacky asks the class to say in Chinese the numbers 28, 546 then 7,986. “Very good,” he says. “OK. Now. We break up into teams.”
He divides the classroom into two groups, calling one team “banana” and the other “strawberry.” The students laugh in a friendly way, enjoying the unusual monikers. “I’m going to pick some of you to come to the blackboard,” he announces. “I need some representatives.”
A student from each team steps forward, and Jacky hands each a fly swatter. He looks at the board and points. “Pretend there are flies there, bugs, things like that.” He writes several numbers on the board, then says one of them out loud. The students race to the board to smack the right figure with the swatter.
“Oh, yeah — good job, good job,” Jacky says, clapping, bouncing. He writes another number on the board, and a student calls out, “Jacky, your nine is backward.”
“Oh, yeah. Good job, good job,” he says, grinning. “I learn something from you, and you also learn something from me, right?”
Indeed. That is the purpose of the Chinese classes Jacky teaches at Lorain Admiral King and Southview high schools. “The teacher is the actor or actress,” he says, explaining the way he likes to capture students’ attention. “But for me, I do not want the students to just be the audience, I want them to also be the actors or actresses with me so we can have a very smooth, harmonious cooperation.”
American students are more energetic, more creative than the elementary students he taught in China, he says. “I think we sing the same song.”
Jacky and Sun have mentors who serve as ambassadors to the school system and American life. Jacky’s mentor is Joan Yarsa, a librarian/teacher at Lorain Admiral King. “I really think of her as my American mother,” Jacky says. And she replies, “He is my Chinese son.”
Exchange Programs Give LCCC Students Global Perspective
Lorain County Community College is working to prepare globally competent talent to compete in the innovation economy through exchange agreements with several international universities, including two in China. Agreements with Changsha University and the Hunan International Economics University (both in Changsha, China) enhance the spirit of global educational cooperation and cross-cultural understanding for students and faculty who participate in the exchanges.
The exchange programs with these two universities have been in place since 2004. Two LCCC students and five LCCC faculty have gone to China, while 13 students and five faculty have come to LCCC from Changsha. Three LCCC faculty and several students plan to go to Changsha University this year. “These exchanges provide mutually beneficial educational and cultural relationships for the students, faculty and staff of both educational institutions,” says LCCC professor Annouska Remmert, Ph.D.
LCCC faculty have taught American literature and culture courses while in China. Instructors from China have taught courses on Chinese culture, economics, history and calligraphy.
For more information on international studies and exchanges at LCCC, visit lorainccc.edu/international.
“He confides in me with things he’s not certain of in his personal life,” Yarsa says, calling Jacky courageous for traveling here to teach school. In turn, Yarsa has learned a lot from her Chinese son. “Their culture is so friendly,” she says. “He’s given me so many little gifts — every time I help him do his banking or do anything for him, he gives me a token — a bookmark, a scarf. He must have a suitcase full of things he brought back from China.”
Just as students are learning about Chinese culture, Jacky is immersing himself in American life quite successfully. “My principal, my mentor, my American colleagues and friends help me a lot,” he says. “I was invited so many times to their parties, and from these parties I really learned a lot of meaningful things.”
Meanwhile, administrators from Lorain were invited to China during the summer before Jacky and Sun’s arrival so they would understand the heritage of their new faculty members. The group of 17 was surprised that they saw so many American cars — Buicks. They were fascinated by the ancient history, the terra cotta warriors, the dynasties and Chinese history. They were surprised at China’s growth.
The rise of China as an international leader in this global economy is very real. And Lorain students, if this curriculum continues, will be prepared to communicate and understand their business partners across the world. Atkinson hopes the district can eventually arrange an exchange program so students learning Mandarin in classrooms can visit China and experience the culture firsthand.
For now, the program is a three-year offering, and Jacky and Sun signed one-year contracts to teach. After that time, they may renew for one or two years. Atkinson hopes this is the beginning of a robust immersion program Lorain will offer.
“We’d like to get students involved in other languages — Swahili is one we will investigate,” she says. “There are several more we’d like to bring on board, but we want to master what we have first.”
The students’ perspective can best be summed up by the eager thumbs-up a preschooler gives Sun after the class sings a round of “When You’re Happy and You Know It” in Chinese. She met his thumb with her own, smiling.
That’s two thumbs up.