Celebrating Chinese Culture All Year

Students Camille Gerville-Reache (left), Rachel Lebo and Esther Wierenga make Chinese dumplings

As a college student, Yang Du pictured himself teaching English to students in his native China. Instead, he’s teaching his native Chinese to students in the U.S. And he said students here show even more curiosity and enthusiasm for the culture than he thought they would.

“Everything about China is so different to them,” explained Du, who is in his third year teaching at Forest Hills Public Schools. “And everything we teach, whether it’s the language, the culture, they want to know more.”

Why Mandarin Chinese?

  • One-fifth of the world’s population speaks a form of Chinese as its native language.
  • In 2012, China became the second largest investor in research and development, behind the U.S. and, for the first time, ahead of Japan.
  • American companies seek opportunities to connect with the nearly 1.4 billion-person market represented by China.
  • The tonal character-based nature of Mandarin Chinese builds connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

source: fhps.net, adapted from add.a.lingua Parent Handbook

That was evident recently at Northern Trails ⅚ building as part of the school’s Chinese New Year activities, during which students made a paper dragon, learned about how Asian cultures celebrate the New Year and heard a performance on the zither, a traditional Chinese instrument.

During a lesson on dumpling-making, students asked often surprised and delighted event volunteers for ingredients using Chinese instead of English. One particularly conversant student was Mohammed Barakat, a fifth-grader who has been learning Chinese since kindergarten.

Though he doesn’t anticipate a visit to the Asian country of nearly 1.4 billion people, Mohammed has impressed his parents already by using his skills when ordering at Chinese restaurants, he said. And he thinks it likely will help him decades down the road when he’s working as an engineer, designing airplanes and robots and machines “like my dad,” he explained.

Immersed in Chinese Culture

Chinese New Year, fell on Feb. 8 this year, the lunar year of the monkey. Also called Spring Festival, the holiday is celebrated in a number of Asian countries.

The district goes far beyond celebrating Chinese New Year. Forest Hills Public Schools began a Mandarin Chinese Immersion Magnet Program in 2008. Those who started as kindergartners that year are now in seventh grade. “Immersion” means that many subjects besides language are taught in Mandarin Chinese. FHPS also has a Spanish Language Immersion Program.

Chuyue Zhang performs on the zither, a traditional Chinese instrument

“We recognized the value of foreign language immersion in terms of global markets and our own growing Chinese community, but also in facilitating brain development,” said Northern Trails Principal Sue Gutierrez. “Through an immersion language experience, the students develop a second language center in their brain and with it, a more robust system of wiring that allows the brain to be a critical and creative thinker.”

The district employs eight Mandarin Chinese language teachers and works with the Confucius Institute at Michigan State and Western Michigan universities to establish and grow the curriculum.

In fall 2017, Mandarin Chinese immersion will reach the high-school level at Forest Hills. In addition to regular trips to Chinatown in Chicago and Beijing every other year with fourth- through seventh-graders, district officials hope to add a cultural exchange program for high school students.

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FHPS Mandarin Chinese Immersion Program

Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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