Program brings two new Chinese language teachers to Manatee school district

BRADENTON -- Xin Dong's elementary students at Wakeland Elementary School were a little rusty when they came back to school in August. They'd forgotten some of the Chinese they'd learned from last year.

But Xin, who is teaching for the first time in the United States through the Chinese Guest Teacher Program, quickly started using immersion strategies she learned in the program's orientation.

"It's more Chinese, less English," Xin said. And it was amazing, she said, how quickly students picked up the language when she didn't resort to English.

This year, four schools in the district offer Chinese-language courses through the guest teacher program: Wakeland Elementary, Johnson Middle School, and Southeast and Braden River high schools. Former assistant superintendent Lynette Edwards helped bring the program to the district three years ago in the hopes of giving Manatee students a more global perspective, coordinator Elizabeth Smith said. The program, a partnership between the College Board and China's Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters, has given more than 150 Chinese teachers the opportunity to teach language at schools across the country this year.

Xin Dong and Southeast High School's Zhou Rong are new to the program this year. Two other Chinese teachers in the program have chosen to continue their positions from last year.

This is the second year Wakeland Elementary has participated in the Chinese guest teacher program. Principal Mario Mendoza said that there is a strong push for language at the elementary school, including Chinese languages.

"It helps students learn about a culture that is growing," Mendoza said. "And keeps them prepared for jobs in a global economy."

At Wakeland Elementary, every student takes a Chinese class once a week in addition to Spanish classes. Many choose to participate in Chinese Club on Fridays, which is built into school hours. Here, Xin focuses on culture. She just led her classroom in making construction paper fans

and then explained their cultural significance to the Chinese people.

Xin had never been to the United States before this year. She's often asked why pack up your things to teach American children when you are a 31-year-old college professor?

She majored in English when she went to the university in China, specifically studying American literature. In a way, traveling to America was a way of completing her education.

But it's also a way for her to share her own culture, and she says she's been pleasantly surprised at how eager and curious her Wakeland students are to learn the language and customs of her country.

Smith said while students and parents haven't demanded Chinese language courses in the district, the interest is there.

"It's a selling point for parents because of the global perspective, it broadens horizons." Smith said.

Students aren't the only ones who are learning.

Xin said there's a lot of things that stick out about American students, especially when compared to Chinese students. She thinks students are given more room to be creative here. They ask lots of questions. And their curriculum exposes them to more subjects. Chinese curriculums stick to subjects that appear on specific tests, she said.

While the guest teachers are here, they can stay with host families. Xin lives with Johnson Middle School science teacher Deborah Peters, who is taking her to visit Miami for Labor Day weekend. She'll be back to her classroom Tuesday.

Mendoza said he has no plans to stop the program.

"If anything, we'd love to have more."

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.