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A sister act: Shanghai and Chicago teach Chinese to US students

THERE'S a rush to learn Mandarin in Chicago public schools where 12,000 students learn from Chinese mainland teachers. East China Normal University is part of the remarkable program. James Biery reports.

Robert A. Davis Jr leans back in his chair in the big room that is the Confucius Institute in Chicago and laughs. "I think we are proving that if I can learn Chinese, anyone can."

Davis, a tall, affable educator, is director of the Confucius Institute located in downtown Chicago. He also is the manager of World Language & International Studies, the Office of Language and Cultural Education for the Chicago Public Schools.

With a population of about 3 million, Chicago is the third-largest city in the United States, with some 250,000 students in its public schools. But for more than 12,000 of those students in 43 schools, Davis, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, and educators in Chicago and China have created the largest program in America for teaching Chinese.

As testimony to its importance in teaching Chinese, Chicago will be the host on April 30-May 2 to America's 2009 National Chinese Language Conference.

It is organized by the Asia Society and the College Board, two leading institutions promoting education. A highlight will be visits to classes in the Chicago schools to observe the teaching. The conference will be attended by Chinese educators, including delegations from the Chicago schools' partners in the Confucius Institute, the Office of Chinese Language Council International (the Hanban) and Shanghai's East China Normal University.

Chicago pioneered teaching Chinese in 1999, beginning with three schools. Chicago Mayor Daley noted that it was important to understand the role that China plays in the changing global economy. He has observed that "Chinese is as important as English as a language of commerce."

Davis is seated at a table in the Confucius Institute, explaining to journalists how the Chicago program had grown to become a model for schools elsewhere. The institute is housed in Walter Payton College Preparatory High School deep in the heart of the city. The institute walls are festooned with Chinese art, there are rows of tables with computers for accessing teaching materials and around the walls are shelves holding more than 5,000 books in Chinese and DVDs, study materials for educators and students of all ages.

The institute opened in May 2006 and offers workshops for teachers and parents and courses on introductory Chinese for travel and business.

"The institute is a resource for the city's teachers, parents and students," says Davis.

He says the institute's partners are very supportive of the Chicago program. "Hanban encourages us to think big, and East," he says.

East China Normal University takes around 20 students each summer for six weeks of intensive study and exposure to China's culture.

After the institute opened, Mayor Daley led a delegation to China to further relationships. The mayor has visited China three times and explains to everyone how important it is that American students understand the Chinese language and culture.

Shanghai is a sister city to Chicago and Mayor Han Zheng and Mayor Daley worked out a program to recruit teachers from Shanghai to teach Chinese in Chicago.

"We have great teachers," Davis says. "They are among the best in the world."

The institute is also a resource for teachers. One of them, Lu Wenya, has taught Chinese in Chicago schools for nine years. She says "students are very committed" and like to learn discussing lessons with teachers and "having fun."

In her classroom, around 20 students from different ethnic backgrounds sit attentively at their desks as she drills them in pronunciation, sometimes laughing at themselves as they mispronounced a vowel. But when they are asked to draw characters on the white board, they often do very well. Tall 16-year-old Jordon Sawyer, wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt in English and Chinese, gave a big smile when Lu nodded her approval of his writing, and other students smiled.

More schools and students every year are seeking to be part of the Chinese language program, says Davis.

"Students are interested in the culture. They were delighted with the Olympics, and their parents see that China is important for the students' future."

As Davis speaks to journalists, the 12,000 Chicago students studying Chinese were preparing to compete for scholarships provided by the US State Department to study in China this summer.

Living in China, Davis says, will "change their lives."

"We want them to study for 10 years or so, and with their Chinese facility, get accepted at universities and find opportunities in business," Davis says.


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