COLUMBIA — Dozens of sixth-graders at Smithton Middle School experienced the Chinese New Year Thursday by pronouncing their Chinese names, speaking Chinese congratulations, eating Chinese dumplings with chopsticks and learning Chinese traditions.
The students in Lynda Linneman's gifted class are learning Chinese in a 12-week program. It's the first time the complicated language has been taught in Columbia Public Schools.
The students are part of a pilot program spearheaded by Linneman, who has been working with Columbia Friends of China since 2006 to make the project happen. Columbia Friends of China is a nonprofit organization that promotes exchanges between China and the U.S.
Calling China a "powerhouse in the international world," Linneman said: "I think it is important for my students to learn about other languages and cultures. Perhaps they will get enough interest in China and take on a different career path they haven’t thought of before by using Chinese as a second language.”
Smithton principal Craig Martin agrees.
“I think Chinese would be a good skill to learn because there are so many Chinese in the world,” he said. “Language learning is vital to kids.”
Linneman plans to visit China in June through a program called China in Missouri, which is sponsored by the International Education Consortium of the Cooperating School Districts and funded by The Freeman Foundation. The program aims to help teachers study the history and culture of China to provide better classroom understanding.
Since January, Linneman has been attending lectures on China every week in St. Louis.
Sheila Onuska, director of the China in Missouri project, said that Linneman was selected as part of the program because of her experiences in teaching and her involvement with the Columbia Friends of China. She said it is the eighth time the program has offered such intensive seminars on China and travel opportunities. About 160 teachers from across the state have participated in the program and Linneman was one of the approximately 20 teachers selected to the program this year.
On Thursday, Hsiao-Mei Wiedmeyer, president of Columbia Friends of China, prepared dumplings for students. Wiedmeyer has been working with Linneman on finding volunteer Chinese language teachers for the Smithton program.
“Our goal is to promote understanding between China and the United States," Wiedmeyer said. "Language is an important part of it. Currently Chinese is not included. So we would like to make Chinese language a regular part of public school curriculum in Columbia.”
Wiedmeyer said she started the first weekend Chinese language school in Columbia in 1983 and served as its president for five years. She started the school so her son could learn Chinese. Initially, the language was taught by parent groups among Chinese-speaking communities, and it is still taught in three different Chinese schools.
Wei Du, president of the Columbia Chinese School, was teaching a majority of American students about the basics of the language and traditions of the New Year by bringing in red bags, spring couplets and dumplings. “They learn things really quickly," he said. "We taught Pingying (basic Chinese phonetics) Tuesday, and at the end of the class, the kids already knew how to pronounce their names in proper tones.”
If the pilot program proceeds well, the students of Smithton will be invited to visit Fuzhou, China, in the summer of 2009, Linneman said.