When a photo of a garbage pile flashed on screen, the students said, “bu xi huan!” and wrinkled their faces in disgust.
To pictures of ice cream, the STARTALK Chinese Immersion Camp participants cheered, “xi huan!”
The campers had just learned the Chinese words for “like” and “don’t like” minutes before, when camp teachers pointed at smiley and frowning face drawings as they repeated the Chinese phrases.
“I like that I’m stuck with people who don’t speak English,” 3rd grader Kip Patricelli said. “It’s fun.”
Camp teacher Kathy Zhao agreed.
“It’s fun sharing another culture and watching little kids learning another language, culture and traditions,” Zhao said. She’s also special education teacher at Kelly Walsh High School and will teach Chinese at Natrona County High School this fall.
It’s understandable if some of the campers think she speaks only her native Chinese. It’s just as well. In immersion programs, students don’t hear a word of English from their teachers and camp assistants.
The goal is to teach the way that children naturally learn a language: being immersed in it, camp organizers said.
The camp was kind of confusing at first, 5th grader Brie Leary said. But she soon got used to guessing the meaning of Chinese words by the teachers’ gestures and actions.
When a teacher placed her hands on her head and said a word she hadn’t heard before, she’d guess that word means “head,” Leary said. The students learned to sing “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” in Chinese.
Using songs and games children know is one way the teachers help students catch on, Zhao said. The teachers and assistants also use a lot of body language, visual cues such as pictures and acting out directions, she added.
This is the third summer of the Chinese immersion camp in the Natrona County School District. A week-long day camp session for 1st and 2nd graders and another for 3rd-5th graders was open to district students by lottery.
The day camp is funded by a U.S. Department of Defense grant through its STARTALK program, and this year’s budget is $59,774,according to the camp’s director, Ann Tollefson.
The program is part of the National Security Language Initiative to boost learning of strategically important world languages through summer language learning courses and teacher certifications, according to the website of the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, which acts as executive agent for the STARTALK program.
Ivana Patricelli said she’s happy that her oldest, Kip, was drawn in the lottery this year; he wasn’t last year. He’s excited to learn about China and the language, partly because his great-grandfather was Chinese, she said.
Patricelli believes the camp is a good way to help open students’ minds, but she wishes the program were longer so Kip could continue to learn the language.
Interest building in learning language early
The summer day camp started as a precursor to a program that begins this fall to immerse children in Chinese language year-round through grade school. Forty-four incoming kindergartners are expected to start the program this fall at Paradise Valley Elementary School.
Camp organizers started a new session of the day camp this year to prepare those students for life in the classroom and to be immersed in a second language starting their first day of school, camp project manager Jeanne Spawn said.
“The kids are excited and that’s the point,” said Aaron Wilson, principal at Paradise Valley Elementary. “They leave here and are excited to come back tomorrow and learn more Chinese.”
Paradise Valley Elementary is the only school chosen for the new program, called dual-language immersion. This fall, two classes of kindergartners will spend half of each day learning math, science and social studies all taught in Mandarin Chinese, Wilson said. They’ll spend the other half of their day learning in English for their lessons in English language and arts as well as some math review.
According to Wilson, the students will become fluent in Chinese. Knowing a second language will open more doors to enriching experiences through school and adulthood as well as be a boon in any profession, he said.
District officials and educators for several years have been exploring possibilities for language immersion, said Mark Mathern, the district’s associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction. One aim of the summer program was to see how much interest exists in early language learning.
The summer program has been more than full since it started three years ago, Tollefson said. More students than the district can currently accommodate have expressed interest in full-time dual-language immersion programs.
Tessa Burton and Marty Chen are two teachers leading the kindergarten camp session. They’re visiting on contract from Utah, which leads a national movement for dual-language immersion programs.
Burton drew wide, imaginary circles in the air while repeating the word “yuánquan” last Tuesday to kindergartners. Later, students drew the circles on marker boards when Burton called out “yuánquan.” They also drew squares, triangles and rectangles in response to the corresponding word. When they got it right, students were rewarded with candy or stickers.
“You have to try and figure out what they’re saying because they speak plain old Chinese,” kindergartener Taylor Goodart said. “You kind of, like, copy them.”
Like the older students, the kindergarteners played games, sang songs, learned moves for a martial art called WuBuQuan, created artwork and wrote letters and numbers in Chinese. They also put on a performance on their last day of camp.
Jamie Dennis said she caught her kindergartener twin boys, Kolter and Kegan, saying “Zhan qi lai” to one another while playing at home after the first week of camp.
“I was like, what is that?” Dennis said. She learned that they were telling each other to stand, just like their teacher did.
Learning a second language early taps the enhanced language learning ability that young children naturally have, Mathern said. Research also indicates it expands the part of the brain responsible for learning language and helps students understand their own language better.
The kids experiencing Chinese language immersion just for the week are gaining something valuable too, Mathern said. Like travelers visiting a country whose language they don’t know, the campers do the same things: try to guess what people are saying as well as using visual cues, context and clues to communicate, Mathern said.
“I think any time there’s an opportunity to learn a new skill or acquire new piece of knowledge in a different way, we’re actually helping stretch the brain,” Mathern said. “We’re actually improving their ability to solve problems. We’re helping to expand their awareness of the world.”
Kindergartner Kai Capellas had just two words when asked about why he’s in the camp: “Having fun.”