YARMOUTH — As difficult as it has been for Xiao Chunzhi to leave her husband and 17-year old daughter in China, she decided to take the opportunity to visit Maine and teach her language, culture and history to high school students.
Xiao has never been out of her country or away from her family, but said she has been enjoying her year abroad by immersing herself in the Maine way of life.
In addition to teaching at Yarmouth High School, Xiao has experienced lobster fishing and has been able to visit the greater Portland area.
“I am so proud to be here,” she said. “I think the school is so great, I am really enjoying being here.”
With a grant provided by the Teachers of Critical Languages Program, 15 Chinese teachers have traveled to the United States to teach Chinese. Xiao said the help and support from Vice Principal Amy Bongard and social studies teacher Amy Sanders has made the transition easier for her.
“I didn’t have a lot of orientation before I got here,” Xiao said. “It was ‘Go to America, be in America.’ But the support from the two Amys has made it a lot easier for me.”
Bongard said Xiao has a gift for incorporating different aspects of the language into her lessons, making it easier for students to learn.
“She is what we call an ambassador for the Chinese language program,” Bongard said. “She has a way of using stories, history and culture to give the language traction.”
Yarmouth High School will apply for the grant again next year, and Bongard said she hopes more students will take an interest in the program.
In December, Bongard was one of 400 educators, administrators and teachers who traveled to China to visit schools and speak to administrators. And Sanders traveled with 16 other teachers to South Korea and Japan as part of a study tour. She then traveled to China on her own.
“The entire trip was a rich learning experience,” Sanders said. “When I came back, I reorganized the Asian studies courses, and used my experiences to teach the students. I went to Asia with an eye of how to bring information back to the classroom.”
Bongard said her trip illuminated the need to incorporate Chinese knowledge to Yarmouth high school students.
“I am convinced that some of the most profound learning comes from exchange programs,” Bongard said. “The concept is still in the beginning phase, but a partnership with a sister school or a Chinese exchange program would work well on the back of the current language program.”
And Xiao could be the spark that ignites the program. Students, teachers and administrators have commented on her enthusiasm, energy and positive outlook.
“She is a lovely woman,” Bongard said. “She has a genuine passion for being in the classroom. She is organized, creative and has a great work ethic. We have such a gem.”
Connor O’Donnell, a junior, is enrolled in the Chinese language program. “This is a big upcoming language,” he said. “I will definitely use it in the future.”
O’Donnell visited China last summer for three weeks, and worked at an orphanage teaching children ages 6 to 18 how to speak English.
“The toughest part about Chinese is learning the characters,” he said. “But (Xiao) makes it fun to learn.”
Xiao said she incorporates songs, stories and history to teach the students the Chinese language. This gives them background and substance to the language, she said.
Evan Dunn, a senior with no previous Chinese language experience, can already form simple sentences and answer questions in Chinese.
“I hope to use what I am learning in the future, and visit China someday,” he said. “It is an amazing class and is so easy to make progress. She’s inspired me to take Chinese in college.”
In China, Xiao taught English to Chinese students, and received her bachelor’s degree in teaching Chinese. She is used to teaching about 60 students in one classroom, while in Maine she has five students in her class. With such small class sizes, Xiao said there is an opportunity for individual attention.
According to Bongard and Sanders, Xiao has started an outreach program for Yarmouth eighth-graders and Falmouth first-grade students.
“Our students are globally minded and it would be great to see the language program evolve into an exchange program,” Bongard said. “There is already student interest, and I am confident there is a market for it.”
She said the first step may be a pen pal program.
“A successful program can make for a harmonious transition,” she said. “I feel it is imperative we reach out and establish a connection with other countries in a safe and guided manner. If we do it with grace and thought we can get in touch with kids. The world really is flat in this way, and it gets flatter and flatter every day.”
Even though the program is new, Bongard is hopeful that with Xiao’s enthusiasm more students will be interested in Asian studies in the future.
“Being here has improved my English, my Chinese teaching, and my technology is improving too,” Xiao said. “It is so different, and takes a while to get used to it, but it has been so much fun.”
Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Yarmouth High School senior Evan Dunn, left, has been taking Chinese language class with Xiao Chunzhi, the new Chinese teacher.