Saturday, May 9, 2009

Cheers to Chinese School

Today was the last day of Nico's first year of Chinese School. It was a wonderful experience! Nico enjoyed it and was thrilled to have won a second-place trophy in the word-phrase contest two weeks ago.

At first, I wasn't sure if Nico was going to enjoy Chinese School. This past fall, he and I enrolled in a Chinese as a Second Language (CSL) class at the Chinese Academy of Cleveland, a Saturday morning program at Shaker Middle School. For this particular class, a parent must attend the class alongside the child. I was hoping Vic would want to accompany Nico, but it ended up being me.

I already know some Mandarin from going to Chinese School myself when I was a kid, and from taking Chinese in college. With language, though, if you don't use it, you lose it. So I've forgotten a lot, especially reading and writing.

Growing up, my parents mainly spoke a Taiwanese dialect at home; they spoke Mandarin to each other when they didn't want me and my sister to understand what they were saying. Of course, that was a great way to motivate us to learn Mandarin!

For me, there wasn't a choice about going to Chinese School. My parents insisted, and both of them took active roles in running the school. My mom taught a Chinese culture class and at one point, my dad was the principal. So for years, while most of my friends watched Saturday morning cartoons in their pajamas, my sister and I sat through Chinese language and culture classes.

Today's Chinese School is a much more sophisticated operation than the one I remembered from my childhood. Like mine, Nico's school is run by a cadre of dedicated, energetic parent volunteers. But Nico's school has a board of directors, a PTA and a pedagogy committee! My Chinese School only had one curriculum track. Nico's has two, the CSL program and one that is more intensive, comparable to the one I went through.

I didn't think Nico and I were up for an intensive language program, so I registered us for the CSL program. I wasn't sure what to expect from it, but right from the start, I was impressed. Nico's class was rather diverse, with a mix of students from different backgrounds. His teacher was very kind and affectionate toward the students. She engaged them with songs, games and crafts. In just the first three classes, Nico and his classmates could sing two Chinese songs and read and write numerals 1 to 10.

Another great feature of Nico's school? Their snack break is fantastic! This is what happens at Snack Time: After the first hour of class, the bell rings and all the students rush from their classrooms into the cafeteria, where a glorious array of snacks is spread across two lunch tables. The snacks are a mix of Asian hot dishes (e.g. curry chicken, bean thread noodles and fried rice) and American packaged snacks (e.g. pretzels, M&Ms and Capri Sun juice pouches). The students earn coupons during class time they can use to purchase their snacks (or they can just pay with money). I loved that week after week, Nico would use his coupons toward an eclectic Asian American mix of foods (e.g. tea eggs and Cheetos). It might seem like a simple food choice to some, but it's a powerful metaphor to me.

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