[Confucius Classroom] Local students receive a taste of Chinese language, culture

October 5, 2016

Katie Ge knew she was making headway early on when parents of her grade-schoolers in Sahuarita began greeting her with a vigorous “nínhǎo!”

The greeting was proof that Ge (“guaw”) is already succeeding in helping promote Chinese language and culture globally. 

Her goal as a member of the Confucius Institute's University of Arizona affiliate is to enhance understanding and appreciation of her country's language and heritage. The program is a collaboration with Hanban education ministry of the People's Republic of China.

Ge, whose first name in Mandarin is Hóng — the word for red — grew up near Shanghai. She recently completed a rigorous review/examination process qualifying her to teach in the institute's Confucius Classrooms k-12 program. With college-level English-teaching experience in China and an aptitude for the arts, she topped nine other applicants for certification to participate. Among her credentials are language and literature degrees in Chinese and English.

Of the seven Southern Arizona schools participating as the institute's Confucius Classrooms-UA program, Sahuarita has three campuses officially involved. For three years now, Sahuarita and Walden Grove have offered two levels of Mandarin to satisfy college-entrance requirements. Sahuarita High offers a third level for students wanting to continue. Sahuarita Middle School offers before-school Mandarin instruction, and at Anza Trail, cultural enrichment sessions began this year.

For 40 minutes a week, each k-5 class meets to learn basic phrases, colors, the calendar, songs, attire and a bit of history. It's clear the students adore Ge, whose enthusiasm is contagious. There are smiles all around as she guides them through a lesson singing catchy tunes about colors, then a section on the folk art of paper-cutting.

What is a characteristic of someone who makes paper designs, she asks the class. Hands shoot up.

“They are very smart,” one boy answers.

“Correct. Excellent,” Ge replies.

He beams. At the end of a recent lesson, his classmates wish him happy birthday, singing in Chinese. Then the class shows off their own cut-outs shaped like butterflies.

At the high school level, students learn more of the language's complexities; one word might have five pronunciations, some with sounds that don't exist in English. They recognize Chinese New Year and other events, eat (American-style) Chinese food and attend cultural events promoted by the institute's UA program.

District delegation

As part of the Confucius collaboration, four SUSD administrators visited China for two weeks this summer, including Anza Trail Principal Darlene Robinson.

They focused on Xi'an, Beijing and Shanghai, visiting schools, universities, museums, cultural and historic sites, the Terracotta Army, Great Wall and Shaolin Temple, the center of martial arts. They met with educators from grade-school to college level and learned about culture, customs, educational systems and shared facts about Sahuarita schools and community.

"It helped me realize how truly small our world is, and gave me a deep appreciation for the culture and language, and to have it here and expose the students to it,” Robinson said.

“When we think of global readiness, part of that is being able to compete, and develop awareness of language and culture outside our regional experiences.”

Reading and watching videos about China are one thing but seeing it in person was "transformational," said Sahuarita Assistant Superintendent Brett Bonner, who traveled with Robinson, Sahuarita High interim principal Mike Szolowicz and Walden Grove Principal Teresa Hill.

His biggest take-away: all-new sights, tastes, feelings and smells. He ticked off other benefits key to expanding global understanding for Sahuaritans, including a foreign-exchange program now in the works, wherein Chinese students live with Sahuarita host families and visit local schools; promoting Sahuarita, and a coming visit by a kung fu instructor.

The Confucius partnership provides funding for the martial arts teacher, Ge, and instructor Amanda Binning, who teaches Mandarin at both high schools. It comes to about $10,000 yearly per school, plus money for supplies, materials, costumes, anything promoting the culture and customs, Bonner said.

It also paid for the recent summer trip, and is offering to fund two weeks of professional development training in China for qualifying proposals. Sahuarita district has a team drafting a proposal for next summer, Szolowicz said. If approved, travel, room and board would be provided, along with opportunities for Sahuarita participants to work with Chinese teachers two hours a day.

Global ed is cool for kids in a couple of ways, Szolowicz said. One, they get to host foreign exchange students here, and another, they're active with sister-school partnerships between schools in both countries.

"It's a unique opportunity to learn about ... a major world power, cultivate relationships and is very powerful in promoting world peace," Szolowicz said. He and the others who visited China see the program growing stronger, more developed and drawing more interest, Chinese teachers visiting Sahuarita, and, they hope, continued funding.    

The district envisions building a k-12 pathway from intro level to that of language credit in  middle and high schools, all creating a bridge to more awareness, Bonner said.

There's a lot to learn, even about likeness, Hill said. "Even though we're on complete ends of the world, we're all still human and so similar."

The Chinese are gracious hosts, caring and loving individuals, and have protected their rich history, she said. "Everywhere we went, the overall well-being a a person was so valued."

Kitty Bottemiller | 547-9732

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