Caesar Rodney students advance with Chinese immersion program

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Allen Frear Elementary School first-grade teacher Qin Laoshi gives her students a lesson in numbers in Chinese Thursday morning. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

DOVER — The dawning of the year of the monkey was celebrated at Allen Frear Elementary School on Monday and led by Chinese immersion students.

There are approximately 140 Chinese immersion students at Allen Frear, all of whom started the program in kindergarten at J. Ralph McIlvaine Early Childhood Center.

The program first started in 2012 as the only Chinese immersion program in the state.

“We were able to begin the program through the support of (Delaware) Governor Jack Markell’s World language initiative,” said Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, superintendent of Caesar Rodney School District.

Through the initiative, Caesar Rodney gained a start-up grant and is now one of three Delaware school districts offering a Chinese immersion program and one of eight offering Spanish immersion.

The first step to get the program off the ground was to reach out to parents of incoming kindergarteners.

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Allen Frear Elementary School second-grade teacher Xiwen Li, center, poses with six of her students, from left, Ryan Wilgus, 8, Evan Easton, 8, Ella Brown, 7, Erica Weler, 7, Aiden Galiszusky, 8, and Lizzie Merkle, 7, during Thursday’s 100th Day of the 100th Year Celebration where students could dress in costumes from various time periods.

“The first year we advertised in our district publication, had brochures printed and had a series of informational nights for the parents of our incoming kindergarteners,” Dr. Fitzgerald said.

And the advertising drew a surprising result — many more students applied for the program than slots were available.

Only 100 spots are available each year so all students in the program are in it as a result of the luck of the draw. A lottery has been held each year to select the Chinese immersion students.

“We wanted to make sure we had a diverse group of students participating and that all kids had an equal chance of getting in the program and a lottery was the only way to do it,” said Julie Lavender, principal at Allen Frear.

And the pool of student candidates for Chinese immersion has only grown since 2012. Last school year, of the incoming 500 kindergarteners, 350 applied for the lottery.

Although the lottery does still take place, preference is now given to students with a sibling already in the program.

The inaugural class of the CR Chinese Immersion Program will continue the Program through high school graduation because it’s scheduled to grow as the students age.

Allen Frear and W.B. Simpson started their program in 2013 when the first class reached first grade, both CR middle schools will start the program in 2018 and Caesar Rodney High School will start in 2021.

Since only two of the six elementary schools offer Chinese, students are funneled from McIlvaine to Allen Frear or Simpson. Same goes for students of the Spanish program, all of whom are funneled into W. Reily Brown.

All 400 Chinese immersion students spend half of their school day learning in only Chinese where they are taught math and science.

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Allen Frear Elementary School third-grade teacher Chen Laoshi assists student Nela Bowers, 9, with her Chinese hat she made in Thursday’s class.

“During the half of the day the students aren’t in the Immersion Program, they learn English and language arts,” Ms. Lavender said. “Our English teachers also do bridge lessons after the Chinese lesson to make sure the math and science the students learn in Chinese is understood and translates between the languages for them.”

The bridge lessons are used primarily for more abstract concepts that require a higher level thinking than what the students are able to do in Chinese.

Although the classes are taught strictly in Chinese, CR staff and the Department of Education anticipate the lessons will help them excel in other subjects and aspects of life also.

“This program demonstrates the ability of the brain at an early age to master not only one but two languages at the same time,” Dr. Fitzgerald said. “We believe that students who can master the complexity and nuisances of this language are learning strategies that will help them excel in other subjects.”

But the classes don’t only focus on academics, they also focus on Chinese language and culture.

“Chinese is my favorite class of the day,” third-grader Janiah Joyner said. “I started in kindergarten and we learn about math and science and a lot of other Chinese stuff too, like the characters and about China. The characters are probably the hardest thing to learn.”

Janiah was teaching the other third-graders about China’s red envelope tradition to celebrate the New Year and significant life events at the New Year celebration.

“People in China use the red envelopes to give their families money for important things like the New Year that we’re celebrating today,” he said.

He was also showing other third-graders how to write Chinese characters to decorate their red envelopes.

Chinese in the classroom

Allen Frear has four Chinese teachers in the immersion program, all of whom are from China and learned English starting in middle school.

“I think for most of them since they started in kindergarten, they have a very solid language for learning a second language,” said Xue Qin, a third year immersion teacher.

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Allen Frear Elementary School first-grade teacher Qin Laoshi teaches her students in Chinese as part of the Chinese immersion program in the Caesar Rodney School District.

And when the students get to high school, they will have the opportunity to pick up another language, which should be easier for them to pick up than other students because the solid foundation they’ve earned.

Although the Chinese teachers are all fluent in English, none can help think about how much better off they would have been if they had learned English though an immersion program.

Xiwen Li, a second grade immersion teacher estimated that her students are about a six-year-old understanding level and their reading and writing is at a kindergarten level.

“For us, when we were learning English, we just learned grammar, reading and writing and didn’t have the chance to be exposed to native speakers,” Xiwen Li said. “When we came here, I couldn’t even order food from a restaurant because we had only learned from textbooks. It was so academic.”

The English they learned was also secondhand — taught by teachers who had learned English as a send language.

“It helps them be more confident speaking because for us, when we first started actually speaking, we didn’t have that confidence, especially with native speakers,” Xiwen Li said.

The English teachers in the immersion program have been impressed with how well the students are able to understand their own grade level work in both languages.

“When I teach bridge lessons, it’s amazing to see how well they understood in Chinese because they give me the answers I would expect from them had they learned it in English,” said Lauren Bailey, a second-year immersion program teacher.

To teach new concepts and lessons, the Chinese teachers emphasized the importance of using a variety of tools to get unfamiliar messages across.

“We just use a lot of tools like pictures, gestures and videos to help them understand,” Xiwen Li said.

Just recently, the students learned about the concept of technology in Chinese class.

“You just have to use things that they are already familiar with,” Xiwen Li said. “I explained how a pencil is technology because it’s a tool you use to write on paper and we are able to build off the one simple example or concept.”

Miriam Case, a third-year immersion teacher, said she’s been astounded to see the students’ understanding of Chinese.

“They can do so much more than I can imagine because it seems like understanding some of these concepts in Chinese would be impossible,” she said.

The Chinese portion of the day extends past math, science and language, Chinese culture is also a substantial portion of the curriculum.

“Teaching culture is more than just ‘Chinese like to make dumplings and red envelopes,’” first-year immersion teacher Winnie Chen said. “It’s about behavioral culture too. The way we speak and why we do the things we do. It will definitely help with speaking with and having an understanding with Chinese people.”

Interactions not only improve with cultural information, ways of thinking improve as well.

“So you learn their culture and how they think so they can think about problems from different prospective which gives them a broad view,” Xiwen Li said. “And I understand how important that is because I learned a second language too.”

As the students continue learning Chinese language and culture throughout their education at Caesar Rodney, through AP testing in high school, they will be able to earn a minor in Mandarin before college.

“It so much more meaningful to learn a language from a native speaker and to understand the culture and not just the words,” Xiwen Li said. “And we didn’t have the chance to speak much English in China so this is amazing for them.”

Putting Chinese to use

One of the other stations at the celebration was a Chinese dumpling demonstration by immersion teacher Xue Qin’s parents.

Her parents were visiting from China. They do not speak English so the students were given the opportunity to communicate based on what they’ve learned in the classroom.

“Today was the first time I’ve seen how well they’re learning the language,” Ms. Lavender said. “It was fascinating to see them interact with the family using only Chinese because they could have actual conversations with native Chinese.”

Abbie LaMotte, another third-grader in the immersion program had a unique experience of putting her lessons to use in China in the fall of 2014.

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The parents of Chinese Immersion teacher Xue Qin’s did a Chinese dumpling demonstration at Allen Frear’s Chinese New Year Celebration on Feb. 7.

“I went to China for two weeks with my parents to go get my little brother,” she said while helping other students learn to use chopsticks. “And while I was there I got to practice my Chinese and using chopsticks too.”

Abbie’s mother, Andrea, a teacher at Frear, said Abbie’s presence on their adoption journey to China’s Hunan province was a valuable one.

“When you go to adopt, you’re usually traveling with a few other families and during the trip, Abbie was teaching them basic words and phrases because we were all English-speakers adopting kids that had only ever heard Mandarin before,” Ms. LaMotte said.

And although the LaMotte’s newest addition, Malachi, was only 1 year old, Ms. LaMotte said Abbie’s Chinese training allowed her to bond with him from the moment they met.

Parents have also reported to the teachers that their children have used Chinese in restaurants and with shop owners in Chinatown in Philadelphia and New York.

“I am truly amazed and impressed every time I visit an immersion classroom,” Dr. Fitzgerald said. “The growth that takes place in a regular kindergarten classroom or any elementary classroom is impressive as students learn and develop throughout the year — but to watch that growth not only in English but in Chinese or Spanish is remarkable.”

Broadened horizons

Although the advantages the Chinese immersion students have seem impressive now, the advantages and opportunities will only continue grow as the students do.

Gov. Markell cites one of the most important opportunities to be an advantage in the job market once the students reach adulthood.

According to a Delaware Department of Education report, “Mandarin, China’s official tongue, is also the top language worldwide for business other than English, according to Bloomberg Rankings. Mandarin, spoken by 845 million people, scored highest in a ranking of languages, excluding English, based on business usefulness…The best school systems in the world focus on learning other languages. They know that this investment translates into future success in the global economy.”

As bilingual individuals, the Chinese teachers have experienced the benefits of knowing two languages first hand.

“We started learning English in middle school and it’s definitely given us opportunities. It especially helped when we were looking for jobs and at different career choices,” first grade immersion teacher Xue Qin said. “We got the chance to study abroad and all the testing we had to do was in English. So we had a better chance than our peers.”

The Chinese teachers are still seeing for themselves how knowing a second language has expanded their horizons.

“When I first came here I imagined I would mostly just be teaching a language course and that had been my plan but my mindset has already changed by seeing how well they are grasping the other subjects that I am teaching them,” Xue Qin said. “I see I can do a lot more than just teach English speakers a new language.”

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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