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Students learn Mandarin from Chinese teachers

Gu Zhe and Yang Lei arrived in West Linn this September


by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Gu Zhe teaches Mandarin Chinese at Sunset and Bolton primary schools. It looked like a simple game of telephone. Four teams from a fourth-grade class at Sunset Primary School lined up, their backs facing the whiteboard that has been decorated with bamboo wallpaper.

Students squirmed impatiently in line and whispered the secret word to the next person on their team. Only the words were in Chinese and the game was part of a language lesson through the district’s new World Language Program.

The World Language Program launched this September in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District. Students at Stafford, Sunset and Bolton primary schools are learning Mandarin Chinese and students at Willamette, Trillium Creek and Cedaroak Park primary schools are learning Spanish.

District administration believe the study of another language and culture at an early age will help develop greater fluency of the language, aid in cognitive development and critical-thinking skills and encourage a respect and appreciation of other cultures.

“Our purpose is twofold,” Assistant Superintendent Kathy Ludwig said. “One is around second language acquisition, the other that is equally important is around cultural proficiency ... it helps us have a global mindset.”

The district began implementing world language into the primary schools approximately 10 years ago. However, Ludwig said the curriculum models weren’t successful and didn’t yield the results teachers and administrators had hoped for. Ludwig said teachers, parents and students have given positive feedback on the new World Language Program so far this year. Administrators are even discussing implementing a language program in the middle schools.

“If the results we are seeing now continue, we will continue to run this model,” she said. “Our hope is that over time schools will look for relationships with sister schools and that this program will grow in a comprehensive nature.”

Chinese world language teachers

The Chinese language teachers arrived from China this September. The teachers speak both Chinese and English and are positioned into the school district through the Portland State University Confucius Institute Program.

Gu Zhe teaches at Sunset and Bolton primary schools and Yang Lei teaches at Stafford Primary School. Both are certified in China to teach Chinese to non-Chinese learners. Both teachers share lesson plans and collaborate with one another.

Zhe, 23, is nicknamed “Momo.” She is an only child. She likes sweets and has a little dog that her parents are taking care of while she’s in West Linn. Her host family is the Jones family. This is her first time in the United States.

“I’m very busy, but I enjoy it,” she said. “I find everything interesting and the kids are very cute and smart. They learn Chinese very quickly ... after they had one lesson every kid tried to say ‘hello’ in Chinese to me.”

Sometimes Zhe teaches in a singsong voice. Her students run in place, shout out words, act out eating motions and move their bodies like airplanes while learning pronunciation. She plays calming Chinese music when the students leave.

“Kids need more games to keep it interesting,” she said. “Songs, dance and movements help them understand the word’s meaning.”

When she’s not teaching she likes to take pictures, go on walks, watch “Grimm” because it’s filmed in Portland and make dumplings for her host family. Zhe said she isn’t homesick — yet.

“I enjoy the customs,” she said. “Yesterday my host family took me to the pumpkin patch. I have never celebrated Halloween. ... I think in America I have a lot to see.”

Zhe will spent one year teaching in West Linn and go back to China to finish her master’s degree.

“I want to teach because I think Chinese is a fantastic language and when you learn the language you can know a new culture. My goal is to just teach foreigners — whatever, wherever. It’s my pleasure to teach here.”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Yang Lei teaches a class of fourth-graders at Stafford Primary School. Yang, 24, is smiley, talkative and moves excitedly. She leads classes at Stafford Primary School in a Chinese song to the tune of “Farajaka.” She claps insistently when children do well and her classroom is decorated with a map of the Peoples Republic of China, copies of “National Geographic” and a big green dragon head.

“I’m very happy here,” she said. “Last week one of the first-grade kids came to my classroom, gave me a hug and a welcome and thank-you card. It makes me feel very welcome.”

She said students are excited and eager to learn Chinese. She said students think the characters in the written language are cool.

This is her first time outside of China. Her host family is the Miller family. Yang has a twin sister. She said her family is very proud of her and that she’s “too busy to miss them.”

When she’s not teaching, Yang enjoys traveling and cooking for her host family. She said she enjoys life here and that people are friendly. She enjoys museums and her recent visit to Cannon Beach. She said she looks forward to hiking Multnomah Falls and, if she has time during holiday breaks, visiting San Francisco and New York.

Although she has primarily taught Chinese to adults, she said she enjoys teaching with children. She finished her master’s degree in June, 2012 and is happy to be working in the teaching profession.

“Children make me feel full of love every day,” she said. “I’m loving Stafford and so honored to become a part of this whole school district. I’m so proud and honored to be here.”

The curriculum

Once a week students receive a 30-minute language class from native speakers. The interactive classes incorporate songs, games, videos, cultural celebrations and text-based curriculum. Educational consultant Jody Weincek helps oversee the program.

Language tutors from West Linn High School will have the opportunity to share their knowledge and practice the language by reading books to primary school students and presenting research. Music teachers have also integrated music, rhythm and instruments from the culture represented in their school.

Students in second through fifth grade will also designate a minimum of one hour per week using Rosetta Stone — an online language learning program — to enrich their language learning. Teachers and all school district employees also have access to Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone curriculum focuses on building vocabulary and grammar. The curriculum is reinforced in the language classes with native speakers.

“What we want from the world language instructors is to build that relevancy and more practice in a generative session,” Ludwig said. “Visuals, songs, chants and body movements are all strategies that reinforce vocabulary. We also want to build a lot of student interactive time so students are speaking the language more. If you understand what’s happening the language makes sense.

“The sky is the limit when you think about ways to make connections and use resources.”

Language Emersion Program

In addition to the World Language Program, the school district also relaunched the Language Emersion Program at Trillium Creek Primary School. Due to high demands, students were selected through a lottery.

Students receive instruction in Spanish 50 percent of the time and in English the other half. The program was initially launched at Sunset Primary School but was deemed financially unsustainable two years ago.



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  • 19 Sep 2014

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