Dr. Romules Durant, CEO/Superintendent of Toledo Public Schools, is always looking for new ways to engage students and to meet the specific needs of the neighborhoods surrounding each school.

One of his more unique projects is currently underway at Old Orchard Elementary in west Toledo, where seventh and eighth graders are taking daily lessons in Mandarin Chinese. The pilot program extends the learning of Chinese language and culture that younger students at the school are exposed to through a teacher from the Confucius Institute at the University of Toledo.

The tie-in is a natural because many residents in the neighborhood around the school are either foreign students or work at the university.

That connection between Old Orchard and the nearby UT is one of the reasons for the pilot program there, Dr. Durant says. And choosing Mandarin was easy.

“Mandarin is the [fastest] growing language in the world and it’s the language of the international business community,” Dr. Durant says. “The incentive for the middle schools is that they can test out of a high school language and start moving toward post-secondary options.”

Dr. Durant says his long-term goal is for every student in the school, starting in kindergarten, be taught Mandarin Chinese every day.

Right now, though, it’s the seventh graders first thing in the morning, followed by the eighth graders, who are being taught by Start High School teacher Yumei Wang.

As Ms. Wang collects homework, she keeps up a constant stream of information, including how in the Chinese culture, students aren’t supposed to write in red because that’s a color reserved for teachers. Then it’s time for work at the board.

After writing a series of words, including who and you, she calls on different students to write the Chinese characters for each word, reminding them that the lines must be written in the correct sequence – vertical, horizontal, perhaps a slash first and then a curved line.

Carrie Meagher, one of the seventh grade teachers says she knows the language is hard but the “students putting in the work are seeing results.”

“It’s getting easier,” says seventh grader Bajanai Eichenberg. “I like learning new languages because it’s fun and challenging. I was in Spanish before but this is more interesting and I like that I’m learning it before I go to high school.”

Daveon Washington echoes his classmate, saying that the character-driven language “makes sense to me.”

Quentin Pickett says he is getting better at speaking Mandarin Chinese and that “the numbers are easy to learn.” The best part of earning high school language credit in grade school, he adds, is that “I’ll probably take a different language in high school.”

Old Orchard Principal Valerie Dreier says the Mandarin Chinese lessons are a natural complement to the instruction from Confucius Institute teachers that has been going on at the school for several years (Old Orchard was the first elementary school to partner with the institute).

“You need to know Chinese now for global business,” Ms. Dreier says, adding that the school has hosted two Chinese delegations in recent years because of the Confucius Institute connection.

The current teacher, Fang Xie, is in her second year of a two-year stay in Toledo. She is an English teacher in China and thought a stay here would help her understand American culture.

And while here, she is hoping her lessons – including teaching the students this week (in honor of the Chinese New Year) how to make Chinese knots and masks, as well as do calligraphy and make dumplings – will expose Old Orchard students to her country.

“The world is becoming so global – we need to know about each other,” she says.

Ms. Xie says teaching the younger students calligraphy, for example, helps them realize that learning the language would not be that difficult.
“I want them to be open minded. I want them to learn there’s a bigger world than Toledo,” she says.

Posted on February 3, 2016