Kansas City students learn Chinese in elementary school

Monday, January 4, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST
In this Dec. 3, 2009 picture, second-grader Felipe Padilla Murillo, foreground, and his Trailwoods Elementary School classmates count in Chinese during a teleconference with their instructor.

KANSAS CITY — The second-graders sit on the floor, squirming as little as possible, as their teacher leads them in the day's Chinese lesson.

They point to their shoulders, their knees and then their ears as the instructor gives them directions. That's just the warm-up. They're going to focus on "grandpa," ''brother" and other family-related words. As the young woman crisply pronounces each one, a high-pitched chorus repeats them back to her.


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The words are in Chinese, but the students are in the United States — at Trailwoods Elementary, on Kansas City's East Side.

Three years ago, the elementary school started offering Chinese classes through a partnership with the Confucius Institute at the University of Kansas. The institute, which is a collaboration of KU, the Chinese education ministry and a Chinese university, supplies an instructor — a native Chinese speaker — who leads classes via teleconferencing from Overland Park. Only a few schools in Missouri and Kansas offer classes in Mandarin. Elementary schools that do so, such as Trailwoods, are particularly rare.

"We think learning Chinese is going to help future generations be more competitive," said Kevin Liu, the institute's associate director for programs; as the world becomes more interconnected and China plays a bigger role in that world, the ability to speak the language will become increasingly valuable.

Right now, the lessons are given to children in kindergarten through second grade at Trailwoods. Each year, another grade level joins the program. If the funding is available, principal Craig Waters wants to see the program continue through eighth grade.

Holding the classes costs about $23,000 this year. Grants cover half of the cost; the remainder comes from the school budget, Waters said.

Finding time in a busy school day is also a challenge, but the language lessons are designed so they also cover goals in the school's curriculum, such as language and literacy, Waters said. In the coming months, students will be covering some math concepts during their Chinese classes.

The Confucius Institute partners with a few other schools, but they usually deal with kids in high school. "Younger kids learn really fast," said Sheree Willis, executive director of the Confucius Institute. "And they're great at imitating pronunciation. They're like little tape recorders."

The downside is that children can forget those lessons quickly, too, if the lessons aren't reinforced, Willis said. Right now, each student gets about 50 to 60 minutes of instruction per week, usually split between two sessions. They aren't given any formal tests about what they learn, though the Confucius Institute is developing assessments.

The instructors are graduate-level students from China. They try to visit the schools in person once a month. The children usually treat them like local celebrities — after all, they are on television. "The kids tend to perceive their teachers as TV stars," Willis said.

The institute places a high priority on working with urban and rural schools, Willis said. Most schools that already have Chinese programs are in the suburbs and have the resources to hire someone who can teach Mandarin. Schools in the urban core or outlying counties usually can't afford that. If their students don't find some other way to learn Chinese, it means they could lose the opportunity to compete for future jobs.

"I cannot overstress how passionate we are about ensuring that urban and rural kids have access to this language," Willis said.

The technology lets one teacher offer classes to several school districts at a time. Liu said there are plans to start offering Chinese classes to more elementary schools throughout Kansas next year. He's determined to expand the program so that all of the higher grade levels can take the classes.

"It would be nice to have it every day," Waters said, "and I would if I had the money do it."

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