China sponsored nearly 500 delegates from the United States to make an eight-day trip to the Fujian province on the country’s southeastern coast to hear presentations and work in groups as part of a discussion to encourage the offering of Mandarin courses for native speakers and introduce American students to Chinese culture.
Washoe County School District sent three administrators, including chief school performance officer Rick Borba, McQueen High School assistant principal Leslie Hermann and Educational Options senior director Juanita Ydiando, and McQueen German teacher Chris Case, to receive an education on the possibility of bringing the language to local schools.
According to Case, the trip was an opportunity to collaborate with the Chinese to start some new programs in the United States.
“The Ministry of Education within the Chinese government is very interested in increasing Mandarin Chinese language programs in America,” Case said.
Within Fujian, American educators spent time in the city of Fuzhou. The WCSD representatives and other educators visited an elementary school and a high school to understand the Chinese educational system. They also spoke with native administrators and principals to find out how to implement Mandarin programs in America. They attended breakout sessions on how to start duel immersion and distant language programs.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” said Case, who was one of only a few select teachers to be invited.
Mandarin consists of a group of dialects spoken in northern or southwestern areas of China, but as an academic language, it is spoken by more native speakers than any other language. According to www.un.org, it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
Case has traveled to Europe ever since he was 16 and was an exchange student in Germany for a year, the country in which his passion for teaching foreign languages stems. But the December trip was his first to China. Now he says there’s a need to increase Chinese learning in Nevada.
“The Chinese government, or I should say the Ministry of Education, is very motivated,” he said. “It’s important to take advantage of it now.”
He said he was surprised by how many Chinese are fluent in English as he walked the streets in the country.
“They’re on a level of fluency you don’t see very often,” he said. “When I was in college at (the University of Nevada, Reno) 20 years ago, you would see Chinese exchange students there … and their English language skills were spotty at best. … It seems like it changed really fast. Everybody we ran into in the streets could all speak English.”
The German teacher of eight years for McQueen said the Reno school is the only northern Nevada site to offer Mandarin classes. The teacher, Jenny Nelson, is a native speaker. She teaches first-, second- and third-year Chinese to about 90 students. Nelson is working on starting an Advanced Placement Mandarin course next year, Case said, adding that the program is only three years old and most students are native speakers.
“We’re the only high school that has Chinese and we’re still extremely strong in French,” he said. “There’s not a huge mixture (of different races of students in the Chinese classes).”
The AP exam for Chinese would be very difficult, he added.
“Imagine the alphabet being completely different,” he said. “It’s a big challenge electronically. (Students) would have to have paper. … The way we think about AP classes is that it’s exposure to college curriculum while still in high school. The more exposure kids can have, the higher the success rate. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s almost more important to have that class (for the experience).”
Case said it’s important for students to have options and to challenge themselves by learning another language. He also said the Chinese can answer the dilemmas American schools face in developing Chinese language programs.
“One of the real difficulties is you need teachers who can not only teach the subject matter, but speak two languages,” he said. “China has some solutions to that. They would provide certified teachers who can come to America, fully funded. That’s one possibility. They also want to increase middle school programs.”
If Mandarin were to be expanded in other Washoe County schools, dual immersion would likely be considered. In dual immersion, the content and standards taught in the classroom would be presented in both languages.
“The theory is you have elementary school students in first grade and half of their day is in Chinese and half in English,” he said. “Or Monday can be 70 percent in Chinese or 30 percent in English. In theory, it should be 50/50. No matter what you’re teaching, you teach in the target language. … It’s a very effective way for kids to pick up a second language.”
Case said going to China opened his eyes to how advanced China is in its economy and prioritization of education.
“In the economic downturn, it seems, what the whole world is feeling, doesn’t seem to be happening in China,” he said. “I saw more cranes and more construction than anywhere else. I was in Europe last summer and it was a big surprise. I didn’t see many cranes anywhere, but in China, cranes are commonplace. I had a feeling all the cranes in Europe that used to be in America are in China now. … I’m not trying to sell doom or gloom, but I was blown away at their progress.”
As a teacher, Case said he couldn’t speak on the district level of what Washoe County’s next step to incorporate Mandarin might be, but he’s optimistic that the information he and the others took away will be used at home.
“I think it’s important that the lessons we learned from the trip, we actually apply, regardless of the sting we feel in cuts in education,” he said.
School Notes is a weekly feature that runs in the Monday edition of the Sparks Tribune. If you have good news to share with readers pertaining to a local school, send an e-mail to Tribune reporter Jessica Garcia at firstname.lastname@example.org.