As a group of energetic kindergartners filed into Feng Yu’s classroom last week, the guest teacher from China greeted them with a friendly smile.

“Nin Hao,” said Feng, which means hello in Mandarin Chinese.

“Nin Hao,” the students responded, as they took their seats around four small tables in Feng’s classroom at Buxton Center Elementary School to begin their weekly lesson in Chinese language and culture.

Feng, 32, moved to Portland from the fifth largest city in China, Chengdu, in August. She is the School Administrative District 6’s first teacher from China and is leading the new program, which began in September.

“This is a really beautiful place,” said Feng. “I love it. I really like the school here. This is a huge step and change for me. I couldn’t be more fortunate to be here at Buxton Center.”

SAD 6 Superintendent Frank Sherburne said the district for several years has aimed to introduce world language courses at the elementary level.

Sherburne said providing a Chinese language and culture program to students is a good investment because it will help them thrive in the 21st century economy.

A trio of administrators, including Sherburne, Bonny Eagle High School Principal Paul Penna, and former Buxton Center Elementary School Principal Diane Nadeau, took a trip to Hefei, China, in November 2014, to start researching how to develop a Chinese language and culture program in the district and establish a sister school.

The trip was part of a collaboration between the College Board and Hanban/Confucius Institute, which supports the development of K-12 Chinese language and culture education in the United States by providing funding, resources and guidance to participating institutions.

“Three to 7 percent of our families (in the school district) have a Chinese background, or have used Chinese language in their home,” Sherburne said. “We also projected out what the political climate would be in regards to future economics and job opportunities. We felt as though Chinese language and culture was where we wanted to focus our attention.”

The program is supported by $5,000 from the district’s general fund and a federal grant from the Teacher of Critical Languages Program the district received in May. According to Sherburne, Feng will be teaching at Buxton Center Elementary for a year. The grant pays for her salary, transportation and living expenses, Sherburne said. According to Sherburne, the district is one of 28 districts across the country to receive the funding for the program.

“It’s a huge benefit to the district and primarily our students,” Sherburne said.

All of the district’s kindergarten students -– about 250 – from the elementary schools in Buxton, Steep Falls, Standish, Limington and Hollis go to Buxton Center Elementary School once a week to participate in the program with Feng with assistance from their teachers.

“The kindergarten teacher goes (to Feng’s classroom) and observes (Feng) and reinforces the skills that have been taught in that week’s lesson,” Sherburne said. “All of the language skills and learning opportunities align with our district’s standards.”

Feng is teaching the students how to greet each other, identify different fruits and colors and how to count to 10 in Mandarin. They also understand how to follow directions, she said, and are grasping how to say they like and dislike certain fruits.

“I feel super proud,” she said.

Feng said it’s important for her to communicate with the other kindergarten teachers in the district so she can develop her teaching plan according to the students’ needs. The biggest difference between the education system in China and the United States is the fact American teachers are more focused on having kids “get more creative,” she said.

Classroom sizes also greatly differ. In China, classes consist of about 50 students, whereas at Buxton Center Elementary there are about 15.

“I really enjoy the small group,” she said. “I can pay attention to every single kid.”

Sherburne said the school district decided to introduce the language to kindergartners instead of waiting to provide the course at the middle and high school levels, because Chinese typically takes longer to learn than Spanish, French or Italian.

“Chinese language is a tonal language, similar to Arabic, which does not follow a typical grammatical pattern, like a Romance language, (such as) Spanish, French or Italian,” he said. “So it does take five times longer to become proficient in Chinese language. It made sense also to provide the language opportunity as early on as we could.”

Feng, who is in her ninth year teaching, agrees.

“We thought at this age it might be more easy for them to absorb the knowledge,” she said. “Right now in China, in the past 10 years Chinese kids start (learning) English in kindergarten.”

Once students at Buxton Center Elementary School become more familiar with the different Chinese characters, they will learn how to write in Mandarin, said Feng, who started to learn English in middle school.

“For me it is important to give kids this experience – something different, something new,” she said.

Last week, in her classroom, Feng asked the students what they remembered from their previous lesson.

“Do you remember how to say orange?” she said, as she began to sound out the color in Mandarin.

Without hesitation, the students replied, “ju? se?.”

Sherburne said SAD 6 is one of only a few in Maine that offer world language at the kindergarten level. Regional School Unit 21, which includes Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel, provides a Spanish lesson to its kindergartners, he said.

The Gorham School District began an exchange program with China in 2011. According to Jodi Mezzanotte, principal of the Village Elementary School, who helped initiate the program, a teacher from the district’s sister school in Beijing spent the 2014-2015 school year teaching Mandarin at Gorham High School. The Confucius Institute at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham also provides professors to the school district to offer a Mandarin II course at the high school. Gorham High School teacher James Welsch teaches Mandarin I.

In 2012 and 2014, a group of students from Gorham spent a week at a summer camp in Beijing to learn about and celebrate the Chinese language, culture and history, Mezzanotte said. She said the district would probably eventually explore offering Chinese to the elementary students, including kindergartners, if funding were available for such a program.

“I think it’s inevitable that China is going to have a major economic, political and cultural force in our children’s future,” said Mezzanotte. “I think it’s important to prepare our students to engage, to collaborate, with their Chinese peers. The younger that starts, the better.”

Sherburne said he plans to send out a survey to parents in January to get feedback on the program. The district is also looking into providing a Chinese language and culture program to first-graders next school year, said Sherburne, though parents will have the opportunity to decide whether they want their children to participate.

Parents are enthusiastic about the new program, he said, though one parent this school year did request to opt out. But since Chinese language is now part of the general curriculum all kindergartners are required to learn it.

“Our kindergarten program initiates the (overall) program, and helps us identify kids who are grasping a second language and becoming proficient,” Sherburne said. “Throughout the school Chinese language is grabbing hold and kids are becoming more interested.”

While the program is designed for kindergartners, the grant requires Feng to provide less extensive learning opportunities to the other students in the district. She has also visited students in the other grade levels, including in the middle and high schools, “to provide some cultural experiences and some basic language opportunities,” Sherburne said.

High school students also have the opportunity to learn Chinese through language-learning software Rosetta Stone, in addition to what is already being offered, including French, Spanish and Latin. He said the hope is that the program at Buxton Center Elementary School will be expanded to the middle and high schools.

“Once it hits the middle school, I anticipate bringing in another world language at the kindergarten level,” Sherburne said. “We will just keep introducing new world languages.”

Feng Yu, a teacher from Chengdu, China, is spending the school year at Buxton Center Elementary School providing lessons in Chinese language and culture to kindergartners in School Administrative District 6. Feng is the district’s first teacher to participate in a new Chinese program, which began in September.Feng YuFeng Yu, a teacher from China, teaches Buxton Center Elementary School kindergartners how to say certain types of fruits in Mandarin Chinese at the school last week.

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