In a season awash in hearts and flowers, a small group of Evanston elementary school students immersed themselves last week in a culture of lanterns, dragons and firecrackers.
All eight Kingsley first-through-fourth-graders enrolled in the class found their way through the blizzard for their twice-weekly lesson in Mandarin Chinese. This time they were headed for a session about the Chinese New Year, “the other holiday” to fall on Feb. 14 this year.
As they arrived for the 8 a.m. class, the children greeted their teacher, then gravitated to an irresistible New Year’s icon: a colorful paper mache lion’s head with bulging green eyes and a mouth that opened to reveal the delighted child underneath.
They picked up the costume and took turns ducking under the head. Then they moved backward to form a ragged line beneath the fabric of the lion’s body. No one could resist joining the parade.
So began a session that typically includes singing and crafts as well as board work and dialogue, giving students a chance to assimilate customs along with vocabulary. Angel Li, founder of Little Linguistics Academy, the organization with which these children’s parents have contracted to provide the classes, says the goal is to “cultivate a love for language and culture” in the children.
In addition to its location in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, the academy sends teachers to various Chicago Public Schools and to three District 65 venues, Kingsley, Lincoln and Bessie Rhodes schools.
Ms. Li, who grew up in Taiwan and came to the United States for graduate school, hires only instructors (currently 15 for Mandarin and ten for Spanish) who are native speakers with college degrees. Beyond that, she says, a competent but staid teacher will not suffice: She looks for energetic individuals who have “an actor’s personality.”
She seems to have found that winning combination in Jia Elliott. Originally from Shanghai, the lively Ms. Elliott has a smile wide enough to embrace all her students. From her first Mandarin greeting, “Good morning, class,” she draws every one into a session conducted almost entirely in Chinese.
The academy provides teachers with everything they need for a class, says Ms. Li, including a curriculum with a format that varies little from session to session. Generally, the content – all delivered in a light manner and in the foreign language – hangs on a framework the children soon recognize: a greeting, a question-and-answer exchange, songs, flash card games, the topic of the day, practice with pinyin (the Chinese phonetic transliteration system), writing of Chinese characters, and a craft that relates to the topic.
Following their hellos, the Kingsley children sat on the floor, gathered around their teacher. She tapped them in turn, engaging each in a give-and-take that seemed natural and relaxed. Later Ms. Li translated this opening drill, repeated each week: “What’s your name? (response), “How old are you?” (response), etc.
The class segued into some songs, with everyone joining in the number song, the body-parts song, the animal song and the Chinese New Year song. Some of the tunes struck a familiar note, though it took awhile to identify “Frere Jacques” in Mandarin.
The students turned the large flash cards into a physical game, at one point lying over the phonetic spellings to challenge each other to find the words. New this week was the New Year’s vocabulary. They learned “wei lu” or “gathering dinner” for the centerpiece of the holiday Ms. Li compares to American Thanksgiving. These second-year advanced students grinned in recognition when Ms. Elliott held up a red envelope that holds good-luck money for Chinese children at the New Year.
The children moved to a table to write in the workbook titled “Chinese Paradise.” Rarely still but attentive, they popped up one by one to match words and characters on a whiteboard – and to write the characters they have learned for such vocabulary as numbers one through ten. This class is moving so fast Ms. Li says she has had to revise her curriculum; forming characters from the eight basic strokes is usually a third-year exercise.
Jenifer McCartney started the program at Kingsley when her daughter, now 10, begged to learn Chinese. Ms. McCartney finds the cost of $10 per class quite reasonable, and says the Kingsley PTA has some scholarship money available. Not only has word spread to two other Evanston grade schools, but Ms. Li says some parents are asking that she give classes next year at the middle schools. She says she is “actively looking” for a teaching space in Evanston.
One-quarter of the people in the world speak Chinese, says Ms. Li, and those who start early have a better chance of attaining fluency. But early study of any language, she says, is “good for brain development” and has been shown to increase analytical skills (resulting in higher math scores).
As the class concludes, Ms. Elliott leads her students in a traditional lion dance performed in the splendid costume. She taps twice in the air to the right, twice to the left and then pantomimes jumping up and down. The lion sways and bounces and then, laughing, falls down and rolls.
Fun, these kids know, is the best reason to study Chinese.