Play Makes Great Way to Practice New Language

A group picture makes for a great memory of friendships forged across oceans

After a year of chatting via an instant messaging app with their friend Louie Li in Shanghai, China, two students in the district’s Mandarin Chinese immersion program got to visit with him in person recently at a picnic for a group of Chinese students visiting the U.S.

Anthony Zarou, who will be an eighth-grader, and Aidan Zarou, who will be a seventh-grader, met Louie last summer when he was on a student trip that picnicked with the Forest Hills students.

A student enjoys a picnic with American and Chinese peers
A student enjoys a picnic with American and Chinese peers

Louie signed up for this year’s trip when he found out he could see his friends, said Kirsten Zarou, chaperone for the Chinese students and mom of Anthony and Aidan.

“It’s a pretty cool group of kids,” Anthony said. “The teachers are awesome.”

Louie said he was happy to see his friends and complimented Anthony on his Chinese language skills. “He said I’m good at this!” Anthony said.

Making a big “shortest to tallest” line, playing a hula hoop game and eating a pizza lunch helped the 29 students from China and 39 from Forest Hills get acquainted before they ran off to play together at Cascade Recreation Park.

A summer lesson in real-life learning, with costumes!
A summer lesson in real-life learning, with costumes!

“During the free time on the playground, they were all interacting,” said Zarou — and probably didn’t even know they were getting a summer lesson in real-life learning while having fun.

“It gives them an authentic chance to practice the language, plus cultural skills,” said Meadow Brook Elementary Principal Tim Shaw. “For the Chinese, their parents want to give them the quintessential American experience, including meeting kids.”

The Forest Hills immersion program is one of only a few in West Michigan. It started in 2008 with 50 kindergartners and now has 300 enrolled. They spend up to half of every school day doing lessons in Mandarin Chinese.

“More exposure to different languages will be better for them in the future,” said one mom. That’s part of the reason Forest Hills developed the program. Also important was introducing students to a new culture and getting them to think in different ways about the world around them.

“Any time we can get our kids to think more globally is a good opportunity,” said Lisa Cebelak, a volunteer mom who was supervising the picnic activities. Her daughter, Rosa, will be in third grade this year.

Organizers said playing games was a great way to practice language and social skills
Organizers said playing games was a great way to practice language and social skills

Kirsten Zarou was chaperoning the Chinese students during their three-week American adventure around Michigan and Chicago. She worked with her brother, Timothy Eaton, to plan the trip. Eaton, who works at the Shanghai United International School, did his student teaching in Forest Hills.

Zarou wished the experience could have been longer than just the picnic. “The Chinese students will have three weeks to learn. Forest Hills will have two hours,” she said, adding there is interest in having Forest Hills students join the Chinese group for a few days of the trip next year.

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio

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