Brooklyn school sings praises of learning Chinese
Updated: 2012-01-18 08:00
By David Lariviere (China Daily)
Danmei Nina Wu (above and top right) infuses culture and art in her Chinese language instruction at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in New York. Baozhong Ye's students (top left) use 200 to 250 characters in each of their projects, and Yuhang Michael Jiang makes technology part of his classes. [Photos Provided to China Daily by Medgar Evers College Preparatory School]
Confucius program is growing in popular appeal, David Lariviere reports from a New York class.
Danmei Nina Wu's sixth-grade class, at 8:55 on a bright morning, seemed more like musical theater than language learning.
There was rhythmic chanting and loud clapping. Three students stood at the front of the smallish classroom holding the Chinese flag and sang the Chinese national anthem. Sign language was prominent, and a spirited ribbon dance was performed.
Finally, for the showstopper, all 25 students formed a semicircle and performed the school song with great pride and joy. And not a word of English was spoken.
"Nu li xue hao zhong wen, shi wo men de li xiang. Mei ge ai wo zhong wen ban ya, kuai le de da jia ting." The English translation is: Learning Chinese successfully is our dream. MECPS Chinese class, happy big family.
And these were 11-year-old African-Americans in Brooklyn, New York, attending Medgar Evers College Preparatory School led by Michael Wiltshire, the principal, and Jean Adilifu, assistant principal for foreign languages.
About 30 percent of the 1,100 students in grades 6 through 12 take a Chinese class, and some take six years with Advanced Placement offered. "It's the largest number of students of African-American heritage, under one roof, taking sustained Chinese language instruction in the country," Adilifu said, beaming.
To say the students are motivated is an understatement. "From the sixth grade, I always said I wanted to be a neurosurgeon," said senior Sadiki Wiltshire, the principal's son. "As the years progressed, I still wanted to, but I realized it would be better if I extended my network to not just America but all over the world.
"Because of my love for Chinese, I realized that I love languages, period. When I go to college I want to study Russian, Korean and Japanese. When you break the language barrier, there's nothing you can't do," he said. "You can do anything."
Young Wiltshire, now an AP scholar with distinction, was one of the first Medgar Evers students required to take Chinese in the sixth grade. Six years later, he already has college credits and is looking at attending Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Penn, Yale and Princeton.
Spanish and French are the other options once the students reach the ninth grade, but students can continue with Chinese if they wish.
More than language
Medgar Evers is one of 100 school districts nationally that the Asia Society supports with its Confucius Classroom program. "We look at programs which are focusing on a much larger agenda and are using language instruction as a lever to be globally competent," said Chris Livaccari, the society's director of education and Chinese language initiatives.
"We've capped the program at 100 districts because of resources and capacity. If we go beyond that, we would be doing a disservice to our current members."
"My main thing is I just love Chinese. It's so fun," Devin Johnson, 11, said. "The way Laoshi (Chinese for teacher) Wu teaches it, we might go at a pace that everybody can understand, and once we get it, we just go on. I thought Chinese was going to be really, really hard, hard to understand, but once you think about it, it's really easy."
Wu, in her sixth year at the school, is from East China's Fujian province and taught college in China for 16 years before coming to the United States in 1999. She got some training from Hanban, a government-affiliated institute for promoting the Chinese language and culture abroad.
"I wanted to teach Chinese to non-native students and we have a very supportive leadership team," Wu said. "What I believe is that you're not just learning the Chinese language but you are learning the Chinese culture as well. You learn to communicate, but the culture gives them diversity."
Leilah Camille, 11, got the message. "It's definitely a new experience and it's fun and all the tests are easy. The way Laoshi Wu teaches is very easy to learn. We don't just learn dances, we learn the culture and we have so much fun."
Jackie Chan as catalyst
Wu's main goal is to teach them to love the language, and a roomful of students sang her praises. "I love Chinese. Laoshi Wu's very fun the way she does it. She says a poem out loud and we repeat her and then, after one sentence, we clap and make a dance out of it," said Javia Richardson, 11.
"One of the songs was "Welcome to Beijing", and we saw the movie and she asked how we felt about it and everybody's going crazy because of Jackie Chan," she said. "I thought it was going to be very hard and the characters would be very hard but, once you learn, it's very easy to understand."
"The idea is to first get them interested in the language and, through songs and dance in Chinese culture, it's easier to keep them interested," Wu said. "First it's fun and easy, then in seventh and eighth grade, they go on to more academic learning. But they still remember the songs in 11th and 12th grade."
In seventh and eighth grade, the curriculum is more project-based on subjects such as the weather and what kinds of clothes should be worn on different days. There is also an art class once a week in seventh grade.
Role-playing and technology are incorporated into the smaller ninth- and 10th-grade Advanced Placement classes. "We want to teach them five skills - reading, writing, speaking, listening and typing," said Yuhang Michael Jiang, who formerly worked at IBM. Jiang also began a Chinese chess club, which Sadiki Wiltshire described as "very, very interesting" and "much more warlike" than American chess.