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Azevada Elementary says “ni hao”

By Miriam G. Mazliach

January 25, 2011

As Azevada kindergarten teacher Orchid Wang enters the classroom, she gives instructions to her students to assemble at the front of the room. They are coming in from recess and she tells them in Mandarin to find a spot and sit down on the large rug. The classroom becomes quiet and lights are lowered as she leads the young students in a brief yoga exercise, as a way to relax the students before beginning regular class work. Wang says that breathing exercises help the young students visualize learning concepts in their minds.

Throughout their day, 90 percent of the class is taught in Mandarin and the other 10 percent is in English. All the required California educational standards are covered except of course, that since this a language immersion class— it’s done in Mandarin.

In this global economy, more and more people are recognizing that being able to communicate effectively with others from around the world is not only a way to keep up or understand different cultures, but also a smart thing to do.

As a natural progression, bilingualism is showing a strong push within the schools. So this past fall, the pilot program for the new Chinese (Mandarin) Dual Immersion program began with one kindergarten class at Azevada Elementary School in Fremont. Its popularity has enabled an anticipated expansion to two kindergarten and two first grade classes for the upcoming, 2011-2012 school year.

The start of the Chinese Immersion Program marks the culmination of over two years of work on the part of district staff, community groups and parents. “My father, Professor Ling-chi Wang, and I first approached the District about three years ago. At the time, we were not able to gain much traction in moving forward, despite my father’s prior successes in starting other Bay Area Chinese immersion programs,” says Wei-Lin Tong, head of the Chinese Immersion Parents’ Council of Fremont.

However Tong, began to see a change in the Fall of 2009, with increasing support from District staff, parent and community groups, and FUSD’s Department of Federal and State Projects headed by Juan Espinosa. Azevada Elementary School was chosen as the sponsoring site and the momentum continued.

In May 2010, the Fremont Unified School Board listened to a detailed presentation on the program and at the June 15 Board meeting approved the motion to proceed with the Chinese Dual Immersion Program, which started this past September with the one kindergarten class of 27 students.

Parents and community efforts managed to raise start up costs, and no money is coming out of the District’s General Fund. For future years, additional funding sources are potentially anticipated through Title III (Immigrant Students), EIA (Education Improvement Act) or grants.

By all accounts, the Azevada immersion program and students are progressing amazingly well. Over time, as the program expands each year, classes would be taught 50 percent of the time in English and 50 percent in Mandarin, when the student reaches the 5th grade.

To have a successful immersion program, parents need to be willing to commit to a seven-year cycle, until their child completes (K-6) elementary school. The immersion approach is an effective and proven method of providing children with a well-rounded, academically enriching education and full mastery of both English as well as the new language.

Back in Orchid Wang’s kindergarten classroom, vocabulary words are being reviewed in Mandarin. Chinese vocabulary is taught through songs and fun learning activities or games. “Kindergarten is a new environment and language. Games help encourage the students to want to participate and then apply what they know. Songs, and movement make the language and concepts accessible. Singing teaches patterns and pronunciation, by using familiar nursery rhymes as a helpful guide,” says Wang.

Two students are selected at a time to participate in a vocabulary building exercise. A selection of words has been taped onto the whiteboard. Wang calls out a word in Mandarin. When the students recognize the Mandarin word from among those listed, they race to the board and pound the appropriate card using big rubber mallets, provided by the teacher. A lot of giggles ensue, but they have both recognized the correct word. In turn, other students in the classroom get their chance at this fun activity. The young students have learned their lessons well. As a reward each team moves on to another board with a depiction of a castle. They must decide whether to move a marble up a step to claim victory, or to move the teacher’s marble down one step, precariously close to a hungry crocodile. The class delights in having the power to make such decisions.

Next, a student is asked to go to the classroom door and determine what the weather is like. She peeks out before heading to a chart used to indicate the weather and date. The youngster selects the corresponding Mandarin words and pictures to illustrate her response.

Noting that it is the 78th day of school, students count aloud in Mandarin from 1 to 78 and then use bundles of pickup sticks to count by groups of ten. The calendar board reinforces numbers, math and counting and they don’t even realize they’re learning because it’s fun.

Later students work on writing their letters in Mandarin, learning the characters, stroke by stroke. With this method, they know how to break down the word and where to start.

“It’s fun and challenging but a lot of extra work [to teach the standards] in both English and Mandarin,” says Wang. She spends a lot of her time searching for visual aids such as: clip art, photos, videos, and creating power point presentations to reinforce what the students are learning.

Wang explains, “Constant repetition and lots of modeling, especially in the primary grades is a key to success with learning. I try to build up their confidence level and want the students to feel a sense of achievement. I try to see how I can help them and reduce the language anxiety level. I am quite surprised how well they have picked up the language and adapted.”

At home, parents can help support and reinforce the concepts taught in class. Even if they don’t know the language, parents can utilize the online resource for the My First Chinese Reading program at www.BetterChinese.com. (During time reserved for English instruction, students practice letters, learn phonics and follow the Open Court reading program.)

Azevada Principal Carole Diamond concludes, “This whole process is very exciting. Observing the students in class, these students are using the language. It’s amazing! Those brains are there!”

Wang adds, “This is a pilot program and we are trying to make it as successful as we can effect with our resources, to help make this program move forward. We’re in the learning curve process and we want to be as perfect as we can be.”

For next year, the plan is to expand the program to two kindergarten and two first-grade classes. Parents who are interested in registering their child should call Azevada Elementary School at (510) 657-3900 or contact the Chinese Immersion Parents’ Council: http://cipcf.wordpress.com. Registration deadline is February 1.



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