Learning in Mandarin
Part 2 in the language immersion series: The O'Hara's are a testament for a language immersion option in more schools
'For math, science and history... dot dot dot... we study by ourselves,' 10-year-old Katie O'Hara, pronounces each punctuation mark in her mental ellipsis with precision and elicits a laugh from her mother Nancy O'Hara. 'We have art, music and P.E. with other classes.'
Mike O'Hara attempts to bring more clarity to his daughter's description of her Mandarin Chinese program at The International School in Portland. 'Essentially they have a home room teacher who teaches the core classes in Mandarin,' he said. The others - like art, music and P.E. - are taught in English to all students (Spanish, Mandarin or Japanese) at that grade level. 'About 80 percent of the day is taught in the target language,' he said.
Katie continues confidently from her cross-legged perch on the couch between her parents. Her face does half of the talking, as she tells what she is excited to see on next year's capstone trip to China.
'Originally, the panda reserve,' she said explaining that now the group is not going there. She then launches into a list of places the class is going. Then, she relays a description from a classmate of what sounds like a child beggar. Her mother looks slightly embarrassed.
'Well, I wanna see one,' she says to her mother.
Also anything pertaining to any Chinese empresses or old-fashioned books. That would be cool, too.
After this description, it isn't long before Katie scuttles up the wide staircase in the O'Hara's Village on the Lake home to find a Mandarin dictionary and some textbooks to show off.
The trip in March of 2009 will be the finale to her education at The International School, but it will also be the first time she has been back to the country of her birth. Katie was born Nov. 26, 1997, in the Hunan province and lived at the Social Welfare Institue in Yiangtan until the O'Haras adopted her at Christmas time in 1998.
'I'm looking forward to seeing how China has changed since I've been there,' said Mike. 'The orphanage nannies are very excited to see the children who have returned and are speaking Mandarin.'
'We're very happy with Katie's enthusiasm and pride in her Chinese and we're happy to spread the word,' added Mike, who quit his job in Sarasota, Fla., as a surgical pathologist to move to the Portland area for Katie's education. 'One of the benefits of bilingual education is the self-confidence and self-esteem we've seen blossom.'
'She likes to do something her parents can't do,' added Nancy, who is attending Portland Community College to earn her paralegal degree.
Mike was in his late 40s before he even considered having children. 'Nancy calls it my mid-life crisis,' said Mike. 'I got a visit from a college roommate and he told me he was going to adopt from China at age 48. Suddenly I decided I wanted to be a daddy. Until that point, we had never tried to have any kids.'
So, the O'Haras attended classes to learn about raising an Asian child in a Caucasian family, and then settled on one thing: they would make sure that their child had plenty of cultural opportunities.
Through their searching, they found research showing that the first generation of Korean adoptees had trouble finding their identity. Adoptive parents were told to assimilate their children into American culture. Many adoptees weren't aware of many other Korean adoptees and sometimes didn't feel either Korean or American.
Knowing that the Asian population in Florida is pretty low, the O'Haras decided to move to Portland.
'I was uncomfortable anytime I'd go around with Katie. Here no one gives a second thought to a Caucasian couple with an Asian child,' said Nancy, who then turned to Katie. 'I don't want you to feel like you're different - even though you're a little odd,' she said, with a smile on her face. Katie giggled and acted equally annoyed and satisfied at the description.
The O'Hara's selected Portland, not only for the Asian population, but also for The International School, located just off Natio Parkway in Southwest Portland. Mike drops Katie off for school every day on his way to Portland Veteran's Administration Medical Center, where he was hired as a pathologist after a year and a half of waiting to qualify for his Oregon medical license.
They started Katie right away at age two and a half and now she is entering fifth grade, her final year at the school.
The best option for the 2009-2010 school year at this point appears to be the French American International School's new sister school: the Gilkey International Middle School, which has offered Mandarin since 2006.
And then, it's likely off to new The International High School of Portland, where Mike is on the board of directors. The school, which is a joint effort between The French American International School, The German American School of Portland, The International School and The Portland French School, will accept freshman beginning in 2009.
Mike speculates that Lake Oswego School District couldn't come up with something in time for Katie to take advantage of an immersion program, but he is an outspoken advocate anyway. 'Our preference would be for (Katie) to attend local Lake Oswego schools,' Mike said at a June 3 school board meeting. 'Our promise to Katie is that she have the opportunity to continue her study of Mandarin, a language she loves.'
Mike was not alone in voicing his comments that night. Fourteen others spoke up in favor of the district exploring immersion options at the elementary level, and over 90 have signed a petition.
'We would be happy to share our insights into the development of a Mandarin curriculum with the school board,' said Mike. 'The LOSD has a great opportunity to capitalize on the interest and enthusiasm of the local community.'
The LOSD started offering Mandarin in the 2006-2007 year and has been building the program ever since. Currently, a student in LOSD would have the opportunity for exposure to Mandarin in seventh grade. The district offers Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish and French in a class called World Language Experience. Then, opportunity to take the first level of Mandarin comes in eighth grade.
At the high school level, three levels of Mandarin will be offered this fall, and the classes will meet every other day for 90 minutes according to the block schedule.
There is potential for the Mandarin program to go to five levels, like Spanish currently does, said Donna Atherton, director of secondary education.
Meanwhile, Katie's Lake Oswego friends are found in her neighborhood; at Christ Episcopal Church, where she attends with her parents; and on the Lake Oswego Swim Team.
'One great thing about swim club is having local friends she's met,' said Mike, 'but we have a disadvantage going to school in Portland.' Others in her class of eight are from Northeast Portland or even Vancouver.
Despite that, Katie has remained as connected as she can over the summer - her classmate's families are just as dedicated to being sure their children become functionally fluent in Mandarin. Between five and 10 families have participated in a summer Mandarin camp, called Yafei Camp, hosted at various homes from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for seven weeks. The camp is taught by Yafei Lui, a former teacher at The International School.
The camp has been less academic over the summer and focused on cultural learning with activities such as mah jong, songs and cooking class.
'I still don't understand why (language immersion) is such a new a concept in America,' said Nancy, who took a 10-week Mandarin course at Portland State University. 'My ears just can't recognize the differences in tone,' she said.
Nancy recalls the teachers at The International School would invite the parents to join in the 'repeat after me' style of language learning by imitating their children's pronunciation. It really proves the point that a tonal language like Mandarin is very difficult to learn as an adult.
And learning to write with Chinese characters is another big feat for an English-speaking adult. 'It's taken me a long time just to write Katie's name,' said Mike. Katie's full name is: Katherine Rosemary Yuhai O'Hara.
Yu Hai (with a space) was the name given to her at the orphanage in Hunan. It means 'jade ocean.'
'It's been a wonderful journey,' said Mike. 'The gift of a bilingual education is the gift we wanted to bestow on Katie and it's happened.'
Katie even wants to go to college in China someday, 'just to get away from these two goons,' she said in true 10-year-old form.