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Chinese teacher visits Oregon Trail Academy

Oregon Trail Academy, which teaches mandarin as a second language, receives Candy Yu, a visiting teacher from China


Oregon Trail Academy Charter School has been teaching its students Mandarin since its inception. Why Mandarin? OTA is partnered with the Confucius Institute through Portland State University.

Through this partnership, OTA recently was able to bring a visiting teacher from China into its Mandarin classroom.

Candy Yu, who began teaching in early December, has been helping OTA’s existing Mandarin teacher, Sandy Shen, teach the kindergarten through seventh grade students at the school. Yu teaches the younger students, while Shen instructs the older grades. Yu will remain teaching at OTA until June.

by: POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - To Candy Yu, the layout of the OTA classroom greatly reminds her of classrooms in China.

“At first I was homesick, because it’s hard to be away from my family and my baby,” Yu said. “But then I realized I don’t have time for that.”

Shen and other staff members have been introducing Yu to American culture on the weekends.

Yu has noticed many differences between her students here and the ones she teaches at home, but one thing they have in common is that they are eager to learn.

“They’re creative and they’re really smart,” Yu said. “They know that China developed so fast, and a lot of them want to go abroad someday, so they want to know how to communicate.”

Yu, who knows that learning to speak Chinese can be very complicated, is dedicated to finding interesting ways to teach. The teachers use games to keep learning fun. Yu’s kindergartners are learning colors. Yu uses a game called “magic bottle” to help interest them in the Chinese words. Yu gives them a bottle, having painted the underside of the cap, then Yu tells them to “shake, shake, shake” the bottle, revealing the color. The awestruck students must say the color in Mandarin, thinking they are magicians.

“We work on keeping them interested so they keep learning,” Yu said. “They very quickly learn one color, and want to learn the next.”

Yu is awed by her students, who learn fairly fast and are taking on a native sounding accent, an advantage of learning at such a young age.

“When they’re younger, they have a better chance of imitating the sounds correctly,” she said.

"We all know how hard it is to learn learn a second language when you're older," Principal James Milliken said. "Kids are much more capable of doing that."

Yu is also helping to introduce the students to life in China, using drums and other instruments. To Yu, even the layout of the classroom reminds her of China and feels authentic.

Shen hopes that Yu will be able to introduce the entire school to Chinese culture. The Confucian influence is obvious as visitors step inside the school. Labels and signs throughout the school can be seen in both English and Chinese.

In their other classes, students are presented with Chinese words in their planners. Shen has even visited PE classes to teach Chinese morning exercises.

Shen, who has been teaching Mandarin at the charter school for four years, has seen her goals grow with the program. When she started, teaching 10 hours a week, part-time, Shen was purely working on motivating the students to want to learn such a difficult language. Now, in teaching the younger students for 30 minutes a day and the middle school grades for 55 minutes, Shen is hoping to go even farther.

by: POST PHOTO: KYLIE WRAY - In the Mandarin classroom, students not only learn the pinyin system of sounds representative of the language, but the traditional Mandarin characters as well.

It is her goal to get her students' work recognized by the Chinese government in taking a test through Portland State University in their final year of learning. Then she hopes to take them all on a 10-day trip to China the summer after they graduate from the charter school. The Confucius Institute Headquarters, which provides all of the school’s textbooks, would pay for all of the class’s expenses in China.

The older students, who have not only learned to speak, read and write in Chinese, also are learning to type.

OTA has a sister school in Shanghai, which has provided OTA’s seventh-graders with pen pals. It helps the students from both countries practice their second language.

“We want to try Skype as well,” Shen said with a laugh. “But the time difference is hard.”

Her goal is to take her students to China to meet their pen pals.