Chinese Teaching Enters Cumberland, Opening a Window to Chinese Culture

[Source] -People’s Daily [Time]    2017-11-06 13:21:21 

Kids in West Side Elementary School, Cumberland, reciting the multiplication table in Chinese in mathematics class

“Hello! Ms Hu.” The kids, on seeing us, warmly greeted Hu Ke, a Chinese teacher in West Side Elementary School, Cumberland, Maryland, when showing us around the classroom buildings.

In some classrooms, teachers were teaching mathematics and science in Chinese. Each student had a typical Chinese name, such as Baiyun, Shulan and Songxue, written on the stickers placed to their desks. The multiplication table, the vocabulary list, the abacus rhymes, the classroom rules and the sign “Please speak Chinese” were all displayed on the wall. Posted on the wall were also some typical Chinese children’s songs, such as Looking for Friends and Little Rabbits.

In Cumberland, a typical interior city in the mountainous western area in Maryland, speaking Chinese or even hearing Chinese is a fresh experience for most people. Molly Stuart, Principal of the school, said that it is the Confucius Classroom program and immersion approach to Chinese language teaching that brought Chinese into the school and this remote small town. This was only an index that Chinese language teaching was becoming increasingly popular in America.

“Students in the Chinese language class can better feel Chinese language and culture in a Chinese language environment.”

West Side Elementary School is located in the west part of Cumberland, hence the name. Surrounded by mountains, the school, with dark red walls and a green sports ground, seems to have nothing special, but the Chinese language class makes this ordinary school the focus of the citizens in Cumberland.

In the Chinese language class and the Confucius Classroom, the immersion approach is adopted. Apart from the Chinese culture course, some other courses like math and science are also taught in Chinese. In such a rich Chinese language environment, students can better feel Chinese language and culture, unconsciously obtain an in-depth understanding of the language, and learn more effectively.

In recent years, students of West Side Elementary School have won several awards in the “Chinese Bridge” competition in the Washington division. Quite a few students have won awards in the speech contest. A fifth grader in the school, who performed the song Opera Masks with clear and standard Mandarin and emotional and vivid singing, won the first prize in the “Chinese Bridge” competition in the Washington division.

The West Side Elementary School has about 400 students from kindergarten to fifth grade. Chinese is offered in every grade, with about 20 to 25 students in each class. At present, there are three full-time Chinese language teachers and two volunteers from the Confucius Institute.

Stuart explained that the school initially intended to enroll 20 students, but it turned out that over 20 students from each class signed up for Chinese. In the past few years, 35 to 40 students have signed up for the class each year, meaning that nearly half of the students are enlisted.

Although the students spend a lot of time learning Chinese, they do a good job in many other subjects, including English and math, with good grades in exams.

The Chinese language class is well received by both students and their parents. The class is open to all students from Allegheny County, where Cumberland is located. Even though free school bus service is unavailable for students outside the school district, many parents are still willing to drive their children to school every day. Cui Jianxin, Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland, was very much impressed with the parents who were present at every “Chinese Bridge” competition in the Washington division. They took snapshots of their children’s performance on the stage. They stayed there until the end of the award-given session.

When talking about the Chinese language teaching, Stuart was full of pride. She said that the Chinese language class not only provided the students with opportunities to experience another culture, but also brought the school respect and popularity from parents. The Chinese language class improved the image of the school and became one of the hallmarks of the school.

“The experience of learning Chinese, like a gas station, can fuel kids up for future challenges.”

Parents and students are both satisfied with the Chinese language class and have given positive feedbacks. Hu Ke joked that learning Chinese had become a great way for the parents to show off their children. The parents of students in the Chinese language class often played the videos in their mobile phones in which their children were speaking Chinese and singing Chinese songs.

Speaking of children’s experience of learning Chinese, Larry Miller, a parent, expressed her surprise when she went out with her daughter Emory who was in the Chinese language class and saw her hearing others speaking Chinese: “Mom, I can understand what they are saying!” Miller was amazed and said: “The kids can communicate in Chinese. That’s incredible! I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen them talking in Chinese.”

Miller said that students, by learning Chinese, got acquainted with some Chinese elements such as the panda bear, Beijing Opera, Terra Cotta Warriors and were invited to the Chinese Embassy in the United States with their teachers, which was an extraordinary experience.“Kids have more access to the Chinese culture.”

Morgan’s twin daughters have lovely Chinese names, “Baobao” and “Beibei” from the pandas in Washington's National Zoo, and the other kid is also learning Chinese. Morgan said that she felt lucky that all her kids were associated with China, and now they could name in Chinese some animals they saw. This was really a wonderful experience for the Morgans.

Morgan said: “Baobao and Beibei participated in the ‘Chinese Bridge’ competition when they were in first grade, and for the first time in my life I was moved to tears when I saw them performing on the stage. Now, our kids are too young to be sure of what they can do in the future, but their experience of learning Chinese can fuel them up to meet future challenges.”

Stuart said that, in the long run, she hoped that these students could learn Chinese as their second major in addition to their first majors when they go to college. In this way, Chinese can become their lifelong career and skill. John Logsdon, who was responsible for the federal project of the County Education Bureau, said that at present, they had many Chinese teaching programs. The county had set up a Chinese teaching program with immersion approach at senior high schools, and soon, it would be extended to junior high schools. It would be convenient then for more kids to learn Chinese in the future.

“Each Confucius Institute and Confucius Classroom is a tie of friendship between Chinese and American peoples.”

Stuart said that students in Cumberland had encountered many problems in their Chinese language learning. Unlike big cities like New York and Los Angeles, Cumberland had an urban population of only 20,000. According to a recent demographic statistics, in Cumberland, white people account for nearly 90%, and Asians are no more than l%, and there are no sizable Chinese communities. The economy in Cumberland is not well developed and the per capita income in Maryland is ranked near the bottom in the country. The computers in school libraries and other places are still old laptop computers, from which we can see that the school has rather limited budget. However, schools are very supportive of Chinese teaching, and strive to provide more opportunities for students to learn Chinese and to get to know Chinese culture.

In order to set up a Chinese teaching program in publish schools, Logsdon and other school authorities did a lot in negotiation and coordination, and years had elapsed before the proposal was approved as an established project. Thus many local people and their families had the first opportunity to get acquainted with Chinese. The project, therefore, had particular significance to this small town.

Stuart said very excitedly, “The Chinese elements have been added to the school and even to the entire town of Cumberland. We are often invited to Washington D.C. to attend the cultural and artistic activities related to China, thus having more chances to get to know China better and even to know the rest of the world. I feel that Chinese will be more and more popular and widely used. You know, President Trump’s granddaughter is learning Chinese, too.”

In his interview, Logsdon said that there were many reasons for the school district to integrate the immersion Chinese programs into their curriculum, and their most important consideration was to provide students more chances to learn about Chinese history, culture and tradition. The relation between China and America at present is important and will remain so in the future. Therefore, American students would benefit from Chinese learning through this program.

Statistics from the website of the Confucius Institute Headquarters show that, at present, 110 Confucius Institutes and 501 Confucius Classrooms have been set up in America. The Chinese language has brought Chinese and American students and people closer. Each Confucius Institute and Confucius Classroom has become a tie of friendship between Chinese people and American people.

According to the US-China Strong Foundation, a non-profit organization, about 400,000 students in the United States are now learning Chinese, twice as many as those in 2015. The goal of the organization is to increase the number of students who learn Chinese in American schools to one million.

At present, many schools in New York, Chicago, Houston, and Santiago have the program of immersion Chinese learning, and the content of the program is abundant and is being continually innovated. In the first round of the social and cultural dialogue between China and America, both countries reached an agreement to make joint efforts to promote overseas studies in both directions. Chinese teaching will contribute to enhanced mutual understanding, increased cultural exchanges, and consolidated foundation of good will between the two countries.

(Story by Zhang Penghui and Zheng Qi, People’s Daily, photos by Zhang Penghui, October 30th 2017 page 22 )


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