“Look at my mouth. Make your mouth very small and round and then say ‘luse,’ ” the teacher instructs kindergartners at Cayuga Heights Elementary School in Depew.
Pointing to a SmartBoard, Lan Wei asks, “What color is that?”
“Green,” the pupils in Nancy Lamb’s and Tara McCormick’s classes call out.
“Say it in Chinese,” says Wei, and there’s a chorus of “luse.”
Learning the Mandarin words for colors was the topic of that session with Wei, who was in week 12 of a special language program for kindergarten and first-graders initiated by Superintendent Jeffrey R. Rabey and backed by the Board of Education.
At no cost to the school district, Wei will teach the young students Mandarin for the next two years in a program operated by the Confucius Institute at the University at Buffalo.
The collaboration also involves UB’s Asian Studies Program and Capital Normal University in Beijing, from which Wei graduated. In Beijing, she taught Mandarin – the official language of China’s 1.2 billion people – to foreign university students.
Wei is one of eight Chinese teachers affiliated with the Confucius Institute program in Western New York school systems this year. The other schools or districts are Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart, Canisius High School, Lewiston-Porter, Silver Creek, St. Benedict’s, Tapestry Charter and St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute.
Michelle Kudla, acting principal of Cayuga Heights, said 14 kindergarten and first-grade classes are receiving instruction in Mandarin through once-a-week sessions with Wei.
Wei is teaching the Chinese pronunciation and symbols for words the students use daily in the classroom, such as numbers, colors and simple phrases. Additionally, she is teaching about China’s customs and culture.
“This is a great opportunity for our students. Language acquisition skills are so much greater at this age,” said Kudla.
Noting favorable feedback from parents, she added: “Any time there’s a chance for a child to have a learning experience that’s unique, it’s welcome.”
“The children like it. Often when we meet in the halls, they’ll say hello or goodbye in Chinese, and I realize they are picking up the skills,” said Kudla.
Rabey, who toured some schools in China in 2010 under a Confucius Institute program for educators, said it is “critical for our mission, in preparing our students for a global society, to expose them to one of the most emergent and influential cultures of the world.”
“The Confucius Institute through UB has been a great partner and very supportive in delivery of this wonderful opportunity for our children,” he added.
Barbara Staebell, board vice president, also traveled to China in 2011 under the Institute’s program.
While fewer than 50,000 American students study Chinese, about 200 million Chinese students learn English, according to District Administration, a monthly trade publication for school district management. It also reports that recognizing China’s growing economic power, American business is pressing school districts to include the Chinese language in its curriculum.
Kudla said that as the year progresses, “we will be discussing what direction we might take. Maybe we’ll reteach math in Mandarin. But for now, it’s basic language skills.”
Wei, who has a 7-year-old son who started learning English at age 3, said her experiences with his language instruction guided her in crafting methods to teach Mandarin to elementary grades in the U.S.
“I have to choose simple things. I am very astonished if they remember something from the week before,” she said, noting that each class meets just once a week for a half hour. “So we repeat, repeat, repeat,” said Wei.