Studying Chinese in PdC Schools can open many doors for students
By Correne Martin
The quickest growing foreign language in the United States is Mandarin Chinese, yet only a few hundred K-12 schools in the country offer Chinese programming. The Prairie du Chien School District is one of the leaders in the Midwest, now in its third year of giving students the opportunity to learn the language.
“We’ve always wanted a second foreign language (in addition to Spanish),” District Administrator Drew Johnson said. “Chinese was brought to our attention by the UW-Platteville Confucius Institute, and we brought our first guest teacher here three years ago.”
In 2011, two guest teachers came from China to educate students in the Prairie du Chien School District. Last year, three guest teachers spent an academic year here. Now for 2013-14, there are two guest teachers, Chunling Wang and Bing Wang, and one permanent Chinese-speaking American teacher, Adam Stout.
Chunling and Bing teach as a team, which helps them to bounce ideas off each other, and Adam teaches solo while also helping his native colleagues with the challenges of the language and culture barriers.
“Having a permanent Chinese teacher is something we see as a strength of the future of our program,” Johnson stated.
There are 650 students in the district. In grades kindergarten through fourth, all the students are exposed to both Spanish and Chinese. After fifth grade, they choose between the two languages. In high school, students can take Chinese 1 and 2 and AP Chinese (or Spanish).
“The idea is that they have two to three years of foreign languages before they reach college,” Stout explained, noting that such a requirement is universal in the U.S. “These students start learning conversations in fifth grade. By seventh grade, they’ve reached level two, and they can enter high school at level three. They’re going to leave high school basically fluent in Chinese.”
Also, before graduation, AP Chinese students have the opportunity to take an exam, which, if passed, allows them to enter Chinese in college at the fourth semester level.
“Think about how it could look on a student’s resume. If a student wants to stick with the language and really learn it, think of the doors it can open,” Stout said. “China is right behind the U.S. in its economy. We can offer students a huge potential in the marketplace. It’s not that far-fetched to see people communicating in Chinese on a regular basis.”
“We’re hoping the program not only has a good educational component for the students but we also want to expose them to the culture as well,” Johnson said. “Some of the students went to China Town last spring, and we’re talking about sending them to the Chinese festival in New York. Learning about a language and culture like this can be fun.”
“We’d certainly be interested in input from the community on how we can build the program,” noted School Board President Joe Atkins. “Our goal is to celebrate school events with the community so they can learn why we’re offering this and what we’re doing with this program.”
Stout agrees. He said even though Prairie du Chien may not have a huge Chinese speaking culture, if people travel outside of the area, the language and culture become more prominent.
“What we’re offering is new, but it’s a huge opportunity,” he added.
Another advantage of being on the forefront of something new like this is that, through the Chinese Guest Teacher Program, the Chinese government provides school districts such as Prairie du Chien with a $25,000 disbursement per guest teacher. The government also pays for his or her health insurance while in America. This is made possible through collaboration between the College Board and Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters.
So thanks to the bright future of this emerging foreign language, Prairie du Chien has a trio of very excited new teachers in its Chinese program this year.
Chunling is from the city of Tongliao in eastern Mongolia, China. Bing hails from Bozhou City in the northwestern Anhui province of China. Both obtained their degree in teaching Chinese as a second language and have prior guest teaching experiences in other countries, such as Thailand. Prior to coming to the U.S., both women spent many weeks at a retreat in Beijing before heading to UCLA in California for an eight-day orientation.
Bing said she is pleased to be in Wisconsin teaching. “We’re happy to be sharing our Chinese language and culture with American students,” she stated, with a little assistance from Stout.
Chunling added: “I’m interested in learning American teaching methods.”
Stout comes to Prairie du Chien from Idaho. He spent two years in Hong Kong as a missionary after high school and learned Cantonese Chinese during that time. He studied Mandarin Chinese and political science at BYU in Idaho and finished his graduate work at Idaho State University. He then substituted for seven years, spent one term in Tennessee teaching Chinese and even worked in banking for a short time before being hired in southwest Wisconsin.
In the local school district, about 30 students are enrolled in high school Chinese classes. Those younger kids just being introduced to the language start with the basics of course.
“They all get a Chinese name, and they like that,” Stout said.
Because Chinese is not phonetic, learners are taught Pinyin, which is the use of English letters to spell out Chinese words. This enables the students to learn much more quickly. The early emphasis is on speaking and communicating. In third and fourth grade, students begin to write the language. In high school, they start inputting the characters on computers.
The curriculum involves a variety of topics, including family life, studies, hobbies, school, food, music, art and history, among other things.
“There is an endless supply of things that can be taught,” Stout said.
So far this school year, the students and teachers have been reviewing what they learned in previous years. They’ve been doing numbers, introductions, games and more.
“They’ve also been brushing up on their tones. Chinese is a very tonal language because it makes use of limited sounds,” Stout added.
According to Chunling, her favorite part of the year so far is simply teaching and interacting with the students. “When I see them studying very hard, I enjoy it,” she said.
Bing also loves her experience thus far. “I love my students very much. When they speak Chinese, I’m very excited that they are learning a new process,” she commented. “When more people start learning Chinese, it will be good for everyone in the world.”
“The kids are really learning and going forward,” Stout said. “When they realize they can do it, they really love it.”
All three Chinese teachers are living locally too. Stout moved here with his wife and five kids. Chunling and Bing live in Prairie du Chien apartments. They are amazed at the beautiful scenery of the region, especially the Mississippi River and the sunrises and sunsets. They also noted that they have met some very cute kids and some very friendly people.